Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Our Client's Children

Lynette wasn't in today, so I couldn't talk to her about her apparently brilliant and very troubled son. Helen came, though, with "good news" about her grandchildren. The older two children, girls aged 5 and 6, are in counseling now and both are on medicine for their hyperactivity. I've met these children in their home a few times now. So has Heather, and we were both surprised to hear them referred to as hyperactive by their grandmother. They were curious and well mannered, asked permission to step outside the house and again to go down to my car. They weren't loud. They asked questions and listened to the answers. But, they're both on the hyperactivity meds, and at least one is in a level 4 placement at Bon Secur. I'm not sure if she is the one who was raped by her grandfather, Helen's father in law, at the age of three. But that one, the rape victim, is still "hyperactive" despite the medicine. The three children are also on a different medication to help them sleep at night. Works like a charm, apparently. Sometimes they pass out even before they get to the bed.

What I do consider genuine good news is that the counselors are working with their mother, teaching her to use "time outs" instead of spanking and "hollering." The mother "does a lot of hollering," Helen explained. And, Helen continued, the children's father is still working, but not spending the money on the family. He spends it on drinking, and the two parents "party" and fight most the night in front of the children.

Maybe the kids really are hyperactive, rather than poorly socialized or made anxious by a chaotic environment and the rape. Maybe there actually is some medical benefit to knocking children unconscious every night. It certainly has to make life easier for the parents. An evening routine, story reading in bed, and consistent discipline are hard work. I can't help but think that fundamentally healthy children are being labeled and drugged to accommodate the sick adults who surround them.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Liz's Sister, Part II

A wonderful woman, Angela Jackson, comes to YANA sometimes with her coworkers from People's Community Health Center to talk about AIDS and related health concerns. We had a moderate crowd of listeners, including a few women I'd never met before, and I sat in the back, enjoying another of Angela's smoothly-run lectures and discussions. Shortly into her presentation today, though, a tiny, strange looking woman entered the room. When I got my first, partial view of her, I thought I was looking at Liz, though when she turned to look in my direction, she looked quite different. I wondered why I thought of Liz at all.

The strange little woman sat up front near Angela, talking, interrupting, almost trembling with freakish, random, small waves of agitation. At one point, she got in some cross talk with another client and then said she apologized. Immediately, she said she apologized again. In about another half second she said again that she apologized, this time sticking her face forward and grimacing until it looked like the exoskeleton of an insect.

At one point Angela asked if anyone knew how Hepatitis A was spread. The strange woman said it was from using the bathroom and not washing your hands. She said that's how her dad got it since he had never used drugs. This particular revelation seemed to leave her momentarily relaxed and amused, but as Angela followed up on the spread of Hep. A through feces, the little woman's haggard face continued its rotating display of tics and sags.

At the end of the talk, the little woman made her way to me, said, "I'm Liz's sister! She's in the hospital, and I'm so worried." Then she fell into my arms, making crying noises without actual tears. Samantha was, indeed, a real person, and, at long last, I had met her.

There isn't too much to tell at this point. I took her back to talk to Sid and Angela, and Samantha immediately began interrupting again, explaining that she had brain damage. Soon Angela needed to talk to Samantha alone about some health questions. The good people from Community Health Center agreed to follow up with Liz's hospitalization, and I had to get back to the larger group. It seemed to me, though, that if you grew up loving Samantha, you would have to keep on loving her. She seemed so obviously brain damaged, so incapable of being anyone other than who she was, so far beyond any rational criticism or rebuke.

To my mind, one of the worst things you can say about anyone is that he or she can never be expected to do anything differently or better. It's condescending. It's saying the person is hopeless, saying she's doomed, and I have learned long ago that those poor, helpless people can prove you wrong every time. Probably, I tell myself, there's a lot more to Samantha than I've seen in this one little meeting. But, still, my God. It's actually disorientating to think that Liz must be the healthy one in the relationship.

A Note on Diane

I haven't written about Diane in a while, but I have been thinking about her. Edgar is still living with her, but as far as I know, he hasn't been violent in a while. She went through a period of not coming to YANA and missed the Christmas dinner. And even after she returned, I began to think of how interested in the outside world she had been earlier, and how little interest I've seen her display over the past few months -- ever since Edgar moved in. Then I gave her a ride home yesterday, and right out of the blue, she said, "You know what my biggest shame is?"

You won't catch me changing the subject when a YANA woman says something like that. I asked her what it was. Diane's "biggest shame" is that she has trouble reading an analog watch. And by extension, that she is not as smart as she'd like to be, can't do math, dropped out of school in the 11th grade and began having babies.

We chat for a minute about learning disabilities, and I mention my very-smart husband who claims that he still has trouble keeping positive and negative numbers straight and remembering to write a "p" so that it doesn't look like a "b." Diane takes that in and seems encouraged. I ask if she's thought about getting a GED, and she tells me, quite eagerly, it seems, that she has. She wants one even if she has to start on a very low level learning to work with numbers.

Diane can get determined about a thing. I will help her in any way I can think of, including paying for a course if we can't find a free one. I hope the next Diane post brings good news.

Lynette -- Another New Client

I had an extremely interesting first ten minutes of the day yesterday. I met Lynette, a smallish white woman with snaggly teeth, brown hair pulled back into a pony tail, and a quiet, likable air. She told me that she's clean now, but had a relapse not long ago. She said that she is working on honesty, and that once she is honest, everything else becomes so much easier. As she spoke, she took off her jacket, and I saw a large, elaborate tattoo of a woman's name, encircled by a heart, on her neck.

'Female lover or daughter?' I wondered. I had the bad feeling that I knew the answer. I asked who the woman was.

"My daughter," Lynette told me. "She was murdered almost five years ago. She was 15 years old." Lynette is not the first woman I've seen with that sort of In Memorium to a dead child. As I murmured a little series of generic sympathies, Lynette continued on about a candle light vigil planned for next month on the fifth anniversary of the girl's murder. She told me that the killers had not been caught, but that police believed three people were involved -- two "shooters" and a lookout. I couldn't think of a way to ask whether her little girl had burned somebody in a drug deal or whether she'd been figured for a snitch, so I just kept nodding and making sympathy noises.

We got back to the subject of Lynette's recovery soon enough, and Lynette told me she realized now how much her own behavior affected her seven year old son. She said that when she was at home and sober, he behaved fairly well. When she wasn't, he acted out. She also told me that he was currently suspended from school. When I expressed my frustration that children so young were suspended from school, she told me that he'd been suspended 13 times last year. "He unplugged every computer in the school. Not the classroom," she told me. "The whole school." Even if the little boy hadn't actually managed to get every single one, this struck me as a remarkably sophisticated prank for a 6 year old even to think of, much less pull off.

"Is he smart?" I asked.

Lynette smiled a bit. "We think he might be. He knows his times tables." Not too shabby for a second grader with a drug addicted, prostituting mother and a school that throws him out as often as it lets him in. "He could write his name when he was two," Lynette added.

Oh boy. YANA client with a genius son, who may have already started down the path of some seriously hostile behavior. Come to think of it, being executed at the age of 15 by a criminal organization of at least three people is pretty damn precocious too. Perhaps I was getting much too far ahead of myself in imagining Lynette's children on the basis of only a few startling facts, but, there we were. I was imagining them, still murmuring praise for the clever son and sympathy for the murdered daughter. Lynette, apparently having chatted enough, moved on to get her donations and then returned to whatever system of programs and groups and part time jobs and appointments that made up her life. I hope we see a good deal more of her.

Liz's Sister Part I

One of our relatively new clients, Kimberly, has a lot to say. Apparently, she also makes cakes in a cast iron skillet. I'm supposed to get a peach cake one of these days. I'll let you know if I ever do. Anyway, those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know about Liz, one of our sicker, more troubled, and, in many ways, more endearing clients. Liz lives with a sister named Samantha. None of us have ever seen Samantha, but we hear a great deal about her. Samantha steals from Liz. Samantha spends all her money on drugs, then takes to her bed, demanding care from beleaguered, overwhelmed Liz. Samantha takes Liz's money, then throws her out of the house, not even giving her time to get her heart medication. Samantha has been married to a bipolar man in the suburbs for decades, taking his money and living with a series of boyfriends in the city while pretending to be faithful.

These damaged, complex relationships aren't unusual for our clients, but the stories Liz tells about Samantha can't possibly all be true. Years ago, Samantha kidnapped somebody, and Liz rode in the car afterward with her sister and the victim. Liz was sentenced to more time than Samantha, the judge having explained that being an unknowing accessory after the fact was worse than committing the underlying crime. Samantha also gave Liz syphilis by taking a bath in the same tub that Liz later used. Apparently, the 13 years of stripping and the 17 arrests for prostitution had nothing at all to do with Liz's catching a venereal disease.

I believe that Liz is a reasonably honest person. I don't think she has either the inclination or the self discipline needed to concoct elaborate stories or to prevent herself from blurting out pretty much every single thing she has ever done or thought. Still, the Samantha stories got so over the top that I sometimes flirted with the notion that Samantha didn't even exist. She seemed to be taking on the mythical qualities of an evil twin in the ongoing Gothic horror movie that was pretty much Liz's life.

Then we learned that Kimberly lives right next door to Liz and Samantha. In a cheap Baltimore row house, right next door is really right next door. Kimberly seemed to know everything about the two sisters and to have no compunction at all about sharing. According to Kimberly, Samantha exists all right. She exists, and, if anything, she's even more horrible than Liz ever told us. In Liz's presence, Kimberly reported the continual bedlam Samantha and her array of strange men produced. She repeated language so vulgar that even in Jr. High I wouldn't have wanted to hear it (at least, not all that often in the middle of the night). She emphatically stated that Samantha regularly took Liz's money and then threw her out of the house. She even told us that Samantha had thrown Liz out naked once, and that Kimberly had brought her in and given her clothes. Liz didn't seem to like being reminded of that particular incident, but she nodded grimly when Kimberly looked to her for confirmation.

"And Liz is sweet as gold," Kimberly told us several times. "Nothing at all like her sister. Sweet as gold." At YANA Liz is, well, something of a pain in the ass. But then, YANA is the place for abused people to strut their stuff a bit, act entitled, burst into tears and then luxuriate a bit in all the hugs and kisses that follow. Liz outside of YANA, is just a dying 48 year old woman, still prostituting, still getting fall-down drunk nearly every day, still under the power of a sister she loves.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Clients and a New Year

Probably because the Christmas dinner served as such a good advertisement, we began 2010 with a number of new clients. As is typical for our new clients, most of the women were from the recovery house next door. That means that they all have histories of serious drug abuse, but that they are sober now or at least making the effort to be. For many, that sobriety is one very fragile and precious thing. A woman named Didi announced that she had thirty days clean time, and we all applauded. She was almost giddy with her accomplishment, with finding a new place to receive care, with being listened to. When I asked if the women wanted to talk about themselves a bit, she told us that she had been sexually abused as a child and that she was still trying to cope with the guilt she felt for not having taken care of her mother. Didi's mother had been an alcoholic.

"And you feel guilty about that?" I asked. "You think you could have rescued her from her alcoholism?"

"I couldn't have rescued her," Didi said. "But I could have treated her better. I manipulated her. I lied to her. I got into her bank accounts, and I stole from her." In the space of about ten seconds I went from picturing a seriously abused and neglected child blaming herself for her parents' failures to picturing a relentless adult addict, exploiting and stealing from her sick mother. I imagine that both mental images were reasonably accurate. Didi, at any rate, was glad to have spoken, and surprised to hear that quite a few YANA clients have mother issues.

Another new woman, Glenda, quickly spoke up to tell us that her mother didn't like little girls and turned her head to make a spitting gesture whenever Glenda tried to hug or kiss her. Glenda, too, had been raped by family members, and Glenda, unsurprisingly, had been called a slut when she tried to report the abuse. Glenda loved her mother. It actually sounded to me like her mother loved her. When I asked if her mother had a bad past of her own, Glenda said emphatically that she knew she had been abused as a child and that she saw her continue to be abused as an adult. Glenda is over 50, and she was more than a little exasperated by the fact that she was still trying to forgive her mother, to accept her own anger about the past, that she was still trying to fight her way free of the things that happened to her when she was five and ten years old.

I asked another woman if there was anything she would like to talk about, and she looked at us all as if we were mildly crazy. "No, I don't need to talk," she said. "I liked my mother." The room laughed. The women seemed energized by the things they had told. "Women's rap!" Glenda said more than once. "I like that even better than the clothes!" So far, so good for the new year.

Christmas Dinner

Denene cooked it. She had set her alarm for the middle of the night so she could take one turkey out of the oven and put the next one in, but she managed a flawless holiday dinner for 50. Anne's woman's group contributed 50 beautiful gift bags. And the day was wonderful. Every bit as wonderful as the previous week had been bad. More so.

I'm not sure why. It may have been the food. Or the experience of celebrating Christmas together. It may have been Sid's presence. When she wants, she can cause people to feel loved and loving towards each other. It may be because, under Sid's guidance, the women took turns telling the room what was in their hearts, and the room responded with warm enthusiasm. It may be because, again under Sid's guidance, the women gave thanks, not to God, but to the individuals present who had helped them.

Whatever it was, the women talked about the good things in their lives. Lilian's exhusband had sent her gift cards so that she could give Christmas presents. She gave me a beautifully wrapped book with a card calling me her angel. Other women celebrated clean time, the gift of being able to talk about their lives with other women, friendship, renewed relationships with their children.

Maybe a good round of "what are we happy about" will work the next time things get rough at YANA. I'll give it a try.

Leading up to the Christmas Season (post from 3 weeks ago)

When I walked into the office area of Hezekiah House, Sister Catherine looked up from her conversation with Father Joe and said encouragingly, "I see you have a lot of people here today!"

"A lot of pain in the ass people," I blurted out. In the half second it took for me to realize how inappropriate I was, the old nun and old priest had already burst into merry laughter. I muttered something about donations. They seemed to understand perfectly.

The week leading up to Christmas was not good. We got more donations than usual, and, with them, more anxiety about missing out on the largess while other people got too much. The loudest complainers were -- I imagine a number of you have guessed it -- the ones who regularly swipe the most stuff. Clients wielded religion like a truncheon against one another, loudly trumpeted their own altruism, and pulled me aside, repeatedly, to tell on the other women. They didn't always wait for actual facts, either. Suspicions, dark, dark suspicions were far too important not to be shared.

"Greed!" Jennifer exclaimed. "The deadliest of the seven sins."


One woman who usually takes a great deal was reported by several women to have made off with bags full of our highly coveted "toiletries." Unfortunately for her, the largest of her bags broke open in front of several other clients as she was leaving the building. Apparently, the woman refused the offers to get her sturdy new bags for her loot, confirming for everyone that she didn't have permission to take that much stuff in the first place. The growing, collective rage found its focus on this one client as woman after woman identified her and told me the story again. The little mean woman didn't know the client's name, but described her, venomously, as the "one with those ugly marks on her face." I ended up promising that this woman would not get anything the next day because she had already taken too much. It was a promise I didn't mind making, given how obnoxious she'd been in cadging (and demanding) extras from me.

So, the next day she was back, and relatively acquiescent when I told her she wasn't receiving donations that day. She left a little while later, then returned, calling out across the room to me that she needed something warm to wear because it was cold out. She was wearing a coat, but it didn't look all that heavy. The day was bitterly cold. I didn't know whether she had any place warm to go. Whether she even had any place to live. Every woman in the room was listening. I turned her down. The woman was simply astounded. "But it's so cold out!" I told her she could get something the next week.

When I told Sid about it, she said she thought she'd read something like that in the bible. "I was cold. I asked for clothes. You turned me down. Isn't that how it goes?" Sid murmured. I had no apologies. That client was -- probably -- relatively forgiven by the group once they saw her being publicly rebuffed. The overall anger level at least didn't get worse. She really had been stealing from YANA.

It was still an exhausting, and depressing, week. The next time we get that bad I will be more directive with the women. I will lock the cabinets, and we will have a vigorous, and not-at-all free flowing discussion about we behave at YANA. How we react when others are not quite as advanced in their behavior as we are. How we worry about our own conduct rather than anyone else's. If that fails, I'm closing YANA early.