Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kimberly is Out

Kimberly is one of our most troubling clients. She's smart, I think. She's definitely grandiose and hostile. She can contain herself for a little while, but as soon as she gets a little encouragement, she starts spiraling into crazier and crazier displays of superiority and contempt. Apparently, while I was on vacation recently, she became increasingly emboldened, to the point that she tried to lead a prayer for one of our most vulnerable clients, Liz.

That sounds like it might have been sort of nice, doesn't it? Kimberly began by announcing that Liz would die soon (probably true, and a prospect that has Liz absolutely terrified). Kimberly is quite loud when she's excited, and quite repetitive as well, so I'm imagining the nearly shouted insistence that Liz would die! die soon! certainly die! As always, she gave advice as well. She told Liz to get a life insurance policy so that she could have a funeral. Then she tried to lead the rest of the women in prayer for poor about-to-be-dead Liz. I gather that the other volunteers got her shut down at that point.

Kimberly left soon, and when she came back, she was told that she couldn't return until she had a conversation with Sid. This prompted a loud accusation of racism since Kimberly, like most of our current YANA clients, is Black. The other clients were having none of that. They defended the White volunteers, and told her to "just look around her" if she thought YANA was a place that didn't welcome Blacks. Kimberly threatened to go to Sid's superiors (there are none -- take that any way you like). When told that there was no one over Sid, Kimberly said she would complain to Hezekiah House (our landlords). She later tried an unscheduled meeting with Sid, was rebuffed, and did not return at the scheduled time. The plan at this point is that she is out for good.

There's good reason to ban Kimberly. She persistently pushes or breaks YANA rules. She lies; she manipulates. She attacks the other clients. She shows no sign of wanting or receiving anything positive from the organization. She's an enormous burden on the volunteers. I dislike her to the point that my skin crawls when I see her come in. And yet. . .

Yet, when I think of her, I find something enormously appealing in Kimberly. While I don't know her background, there's a lot of reason to believe that she's had the sort of childhood so many of our women have suffered through: malicious parents, serious sexual trauma, no protection, no stability. That's the sort of background that convinces you that you are less than the people around you. And Kimberly is resisting the only way she knows how. She finds someone weaker, and she stands over that person like a dog that's won a fight, howling to everyone in earshot, "Look at me! I'm better than this person! More than this person! I'm the one who can dominate!"

She's still trying so hard not to be worthless. I have a weird sort of admiration for Kimberly. I just can't help her. I can't change YANA to be the much more structured environment she needs. I can't work up much optimism that she'll find the sort of place she needs.

Tina's Sister is Dead

I've posted about Tina many times. I've said that she is small; she is sick; she doesn't back down from a fist fight; she believes in revenge, and she believes in family. I've said that she and her cousin Liz remind me of a pair of leathery old cowboys, bones smashed almost to dust from all the hard falls they've taken, still riding the same sad, few streets of Baltimore with death, for each of them, almost visible on the horizon.

Somewhat more prosaically, I've also said that Tina's mother tried to hang her when she was still in elementary school and that Tina believes she was infected with HIV by the aunt who regularly injected her with heroin when she was 14. I haven't written how she became a prostitute because I've never asked her that. Anyway, I think I already know. A poor family like Tina's doesn't spend daily heroin money on little girls without a reason, and what more efficient, economical reason can there be than to keep them compliant for their tricks?

Another thing I haven't written about was how much Tina loves her sister. They're close in age, and although the sister was the favored child, she was still abused more than enough for Tina to cling to her and love her. Tina's sister got the heroin injections too, of course, prostituted, got HIV and then AIDS, got sick, gotten beaten, was in and out of comas. After her children were born, she went off heroin and onto methadone so she could care for them. She married, drove a car, lived in a Section 8 house with her mother and her family. Her husband was a drug dealer and violent, but he didn't hit her or their children. On the whole, Tina's sister seemed far healthier than Tina. Still, she spent a long time in the hospital, seemed to get better, then developed some sort of strange lung infection and rapidly died. Tina's reaction has been an enormous surprise.

Tina's using fewer drugs, often far fewer, so that she can care for her nieces. Drug dealer dad is still on the scene, but Tina doesn't think too much of his parenting abilities. She's sure she can do better. The Section 8 house has already been transferred to Tina's name because, in Baltimore at least, people with HIV get faster city services. She's afraid to live there with him, but she does so anyway for the sake of the children. To a very large extent, Tina has stepped into her sister's shoes and has begun living a healthier life. I had thought her sister's death might just kill her instead.

Tina herself seems to have at least a fair understanding of how much she is helping herself by helping her nieces. She told us one day that she didn't worry too much about her own daughter because she knew her child was happy and safe being cared for by her (paternal) grandmother. All of Tina's focus now was on her sister's daughters. Then Tina said she knew she was being selfish. Of course, we assured her that she was not. It might be more accurate to say that she was being the best sort of selfish, protecting and strengthening herself through a worthwhile mission. She may have been the last sort of person Ms. Rand and Mr. Brandon were thinking of when they wrote the "Virtue of Selfishness," but she's a living example of some of their better ideals.

Faced with tragedy, Tina did not give in. She did not accept merely surviving from day to day, hoping only to avoid greater pain. Tina has a project. She has love. She has a deep desire to impose her will on her own ugly little corner of the world and make it a better place. Despite all her many wounds, Tina is just plain strong. She makes me feel the way I did when I was 14: that there will always be a great love to be had, something important to do, a big fight to be won. All those romantics who used to write about the indomitable human spirit should be so lucky as to meet someone like Tina.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Grieving for Lilian

This is the 6th or 7th time I've written something about Lilian, but it will be the first time I tell you about the person she has become. As I wrote in the beginning, she's a petite, white woman, well groomed, well dressed, somewhere near 50. When I first knew her, she was quiet, rather dull, in fact, and I didn't think so much of her. She'd stare into the distance or make some remark in her flat affect way, and then drift back into her mousy silence.

In the fall, her energy level picked up dramatically, and suddenly a lively, teasing, sweet natured personalty emerged. I assumed that the change in Lilian was a change in drug usage, and I was right. The Lilian who was fun to be around was the real Lilian, no longer repressed by whatever she was putting in her veins or taking in a pill. She was rapidly becoming sicker, though, leaning a little sideways from a stroke, her t-cell count plummeting almost to the point of full blown AIDS, going into the hospital with serious breathing problems. None of that seemed to bother her, however. Lilian had a level of denial that made her seem indomitable.

She disappeared for a while, and came back sicker than ever. She was still the same sweet natured Lilian, eagerly finding the good news or the humor in anything and laughing delightedly at her own self mocking jokes. The denial, however, was gone. She even spoke about having to start getting honest with herself about how sick she was. She was thankful for the support she received. She was thoughtful. She seemed like a remarkably well integrated adult. I don't know how such growth can be possible for a woman who was helped into prostitution by her mother while she was still in her teens and who appeared to have spent all or most of the long years that followed caught up in the trauma and addiction that come with a life of "getting into cars." Still, there it was. I saw the growth. I saw the whole person, the one that had been dormant all that time, blossoming forth with all her rich appreciation of the world around her.

Lilian came back sporadically, used the snow storm to manipulate an overnight visit with her grandchildren away from her transitional house. She was still a pleasure every single time she came. Recently, she has been gone for 8 weeks. It was time spent in the hospital and a nursing home. She is leaning on her cane much more dramatically now. She's had the AIDS pneumonia and probably another stroke. Her legs are badly swollen, and her hands shake from the seven medications she's on. She has an infection in her intestines that the doctors can't cure, and they've told her that they will have to remove her colon. That means a colostomy bag.

Lilian is still alive. She's still a lovely person but every time I see her now, I think of a snowman, slowly decreasing in the sun and the rain. It's hard to imagine a return to health for Lilian and hard to imagine that she has all that many more years left. She's still trying, though. She still has her good attitude. I'm going to try too, although my attitude isn't nearly as good. I hope to find a way to take her for a second opinion on the colostomy bag thing. Still, I've already started to grieve for a good woman who may have begun to enjoy her life only at its end.