Tag Archives: social work

for L., 195?-2014.

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the voicemail said, “call me. something terrible has happened.” my first thought was, L. is dead. when i called and discovered that i was right, that she hadn’t come to work and her son said that she’d died and  they didn’t know what the cause was, my immediate instinct was, she killed herself. i never had any doubt in my mind. she was in her fifties, not super healthy but not super unhealthy either. we worked together, at the crisis mental health residence. at my job, “co-workers” doesn’t mean awkward chit-chat in the ladies room about guarded pleasantries, doesn’t mean being hushed by a boss for talking. at my job, we are together 24 hours a day, we go through so much, and we become very close. my first shift with L. was an overnight that very suddenly descended into chaos. i came back from talking one guy down after the incident to find L. sobbing in the office. “do you want a hug?” i asked, and she said yes, and there we were, in an office in san francisco late at night, her sobbing in my arms, an hour after we’d met. after that, how could we not become friends. she would yell, “hi, sweeetie!” when i arrived, all warmth and glow. but still, that deep sadness that was apparent all around her, that we weren’t allowed to touch. we’d ask how she was doing and she’d say, “i’m fiiiine!” a little too cheerfully. we didn’t question it. didn’t make sure that she was really okay.

my last conversation with her that i remember, she’d mentioned having some problems with her live-in partner. he’d called her a bitch and they weren’t on speaking terms. “why don’t you kick him out?” i asked, half-jokingly. “i can’t afford to live on my own,” she sighed, and in that tone there was so much resignation, such a sense of being trapped. and there was so much i didn’t ask, so much we didn’t ask. not that she would have told us anyway.

at the weird company-sponsored grief-counseling group, i was the one to say it. i think she committed suicide. more than one person agreed with me. more than one person expressed the belief that suicide is inevitable. i wanted to scream, if suicide is inevitable than what the fuck are we doing with our lives? we work with acutely suicidal people, and although the work we do is imperfect and underfunded and understaffed and nowhere near enough time (two weeks! TWO MOTHERFUCKIN’ WEEKS!) clients often tell us that we’ve done a good job with them, that we’ve given them hope. L., in her last week at work, in her last week of life, did a lot of really amazing work with someone who was very suicidal. was that it? was that why? was she hoarding pills while she tried to convince him to live?
human beings are referred to as “the only animal that commits suicide.” but that isn’t true. my ex-girlfriend had a snake that committed suicide. it stopped eating and she took it to the vet. the vet said that reptiles in captivity do that sometimes, once they realize that they’re in a cage and they aren’t ever getting out. they refuse to eat. they’d rather die.

now, in the aftermath, i have no energy. i ignore texts. i don’t care anymore. when clients ask me for things i want to roll my eyes. who cares. L. is dead. every day shift, she was supposed to be there, and they’re that much harder. i broke down sobbing in front of my co-workers, who were all really nice but i felt embarrassed. i have no interest in being, or attempting to be, posi about this. there is nothing good about it. nothing.

the cockroaches in my apartment have finally grown too plentiful to ignore. i don’t want to kill them, my imagination is too good, i think about the social structures that they create. i see them scampering across my apartment, full of life. they often drown in my drain, or in any puddle of water, they get incinerated in the flames of my stove and wander into the freezer and freeze to death, but they keep going. they want to live so badly. i spray them with a spray that my boyfriend helped me pick out because i’m that level of non-functional right now. they run and then they freeze, twitch for a while, then they are gone.  i bear witness to these tiny deaths because i feel it’s the least i can do, even if it makes me feel terrible.

on wednesday, three co-workers and i went to her memorial service. it was on the beach. half-moon bay, several miles south of san francisco. so hypnotizingly beautiful, the clear blue water, the white sand. the signs warning that you can’t go into this beautiful water, that people have drowned just by wading. that the waves are unusually large and strong. it was here, standing in a black wool dress with the sun beating down on me, my feet bare, my toes in the pacific, that one of her friends answered my question of what happened. “she took pills,” she said. “she left a note. this wasn’t the first time, or the second time. it was more like the twelfth. we all knew we’d lose her this way. it was just a matter of time.”
we didn’t know. she’d never told us at all. a lot of people at work, myself included, are open about our own painful struggles with mental health issues or drug addictions or whatever has shaped us. it’s about half and half–people who’ve gone to school vs. people who’ve lived it. she’d gone to school, and she didn’t talk about her past. so we all assumed that she didn’t live it. we never asked. we never thought. she was such a good counselor. i said, at some point, maybe on a shift or maybe on the car ride home, if L. can’t survive this job, how can anyone?
her adult son told us that the job was what kept her going this long. he said that he’d visited her at work, how he hadn’t wanted to go because his mom had to stay at places like our job, after every suicide attempt, and they were always so white, so sterile, so sad. he thought it would remind him of a sad time. but he visited her at work and saw the bright yellow and orange walls, the clients all cooking with his mom and having a good time, and realized that it was different, realized why she wanted to be there. her ex-husband told us that the note was addressed to her four adult children, and that it essentially said, it’s not like you aren’t worth it, but i just can’t do this anymore. her daughter had made an altar on the beach, full of pictures of her mom throughout various stages of her life. it was beautiful and sad. i took a picture with my shadow cast over it from the setting sun.

in a cruel twist of library availability, “being flynn” finally came on the holdshelf for me the day afterwards. it’s a movie based on nick flynn’s memoir, “another bullshit night in suck city,” about working at a homeless shelter where his estranged father is a resident, while recovering from the suicide of his mother. i watched it and could relate far too much, especially when they talked about the kinds of people who work at such a draining job–the jesus freaks, the ex-cons, and the punks. (i think we all know which category i fall into!) there’s a moment where they all talk to the camera about why they’re here, the punks shouting, “this job is so hardcore! i could never get this adrenaline rush anywhere else!” lili taylor, playing the front desk monitor, smiles at the camera and says, “i used to be a crack addict and a hooker. i clawed my way up and i got this job. within two years, i’ll be back on drugs and back in the street. because,”–her smile turning rueful–“everyone knows that you can’t stay changed for long.”

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&, oh.

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this morning, early on, i watched _____ leave the house and i realized, too late, that she was out to commit a self-destructive act, and like many self-destructive teens she needed someone to call her on it. but i realized too late. i was tired from staying up all night. excuses, excuses. she clattered out to that cab. it drove her away. i don’t know if i will see her again, or if it even really matters–just that she is so fucking smart and i am sad that her life is like this.

i am hoping that things aren’t always this way. i remember, a few years ago, when someone who has done a lot of fucked up shit to me sent me an email when i was reeling from some awful things–that they had done!–to say that they are sending “positive vibes [my] way”. it was then that i realize that wishing, and hoping, in lieu of direct action, is fucking bullshit. not to discount good energy–i do believe in it, i do–but it isn’t enough. it never will be enough.

i can take a tiny amount of comfort from the fact that several people have apologized for not intervening at various points of my own fucked up youth, and what they mentioned was never anything i remembered needing. what i needed was always something that nobody noticed, and the things that haunted other people were not really a big deal for me.

but, cool, i am 31 now and i dreaded getting older for so long but now i love it. now this thing is 15 years behind me, that thing is 21 years behind me, that thing is nearly 2 years behind me. i am growing, i am growing stronger and i am leaving things behind, always. that thing was 12 years ago and i was finally able to write about it. i am writing a book about the last 15 years. i want it to come out so desperately but i fear that when it does, i will be so slandered. the pain of having it not come out is equal to the pain of nobody ever reading it.

i came home on a crowded transbay bus, slept for 6 blissful pill-induced hours. woke up and went out for a pleasant evening with my lover, in which i could not stop beating myself up for my multiple failures as a human being. i should have said something. should have done something. i didn’t. i got a letter from ******** that scared me–not because of what it said, because of what it didn’t say. i fear that this will be the last i hear from them, that anyone hears from them. i went on facebook to make sure they’re still alive, because sometimes that is all you can do.

i remember one thing that saved me. in high school, my poetry teacher reading a poem that he’d written, about his students who romanticize death. there was a line:

there are no beautiful suicides,

only cold corpses with shit in their pants

and the end of the gifts.

–phil asaph

what happened at work today.

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i got up to make copies and when i came back some co-workers were clustering around my desk (my desk is right by the main door, so people often stop there to chat, which is sometimes okay and sometimes awful.) one of my co-workers (i work for chil*d protectiv*e s*ervices) (asterisks so it won’t come up on google) was in the middle of some lengthy story about how she was helping a client escape her abusive boyfriend, who’d done some horrible thing or other to her, helping her go to a women’s shelter, and right as they were leaving she turned around to him and said, “i’ll call you later!”
as if this wasn’t bad enough, one of my least favorite co-workers was there, and of course he had to open his big fucking mouth. this guy is an early-30’s white guy who thinks he’s really funny, in an offensive-standup-comedian way (which is my least fave kinda humor). he’s pretty popular around the office, but i think he’s an asshole (i, in case you hadn’t already guessed, am pretty damn unpopular around the office).
his response? i am not kidding, this is a pretty much verbatim quote: “these fucking women always go back to their man that hits ’em. you know what i fuckin’ wish? i wish that all these moms who are in these abusive relationships–i think the best case scenario would be if her boyfriend just fuckin’ killed her. then she’d be dead, no more babies for us to take, he’d be in prison for life, and the kids would get adopted into a nice happy family and just forget all this shit.” I AM NOT KIDDING, THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT HE SAID.
and do you know what my co-workers did? the motherfuckers LAUGHED. they thought it was FUNNY.
i sat at my desk poker-faced, stuffing envelopes like nothing was wrong. i thought about a lot of things. i thought, “fuck you, motherfucker, what do you know about being a woman? what do you know about all the millions of things that tell us you ain’t shit if you don’t have a man?” i seriously thought about just screaming, “FUCK ALL OF YOU ASSHOLES, that isn’t fucking funny!” and gathering up my things and running out and leaving them with all my work to do. never coming back, ever.
i didn’t do that. why? because i didn’t want the opinion that women’s lives are worth saving to be forever tied to “that crazy girl that ran the fuck out one day.” because i had just had a very expensive medical procedure done the day before & feared my insurance wouldn’t cover it. because i was so angry i knew once i opened my mouth i’d just be able to say FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK. because i know they don’t give a shit about anything, because compassion has no place in their worlds, and anything i say or do doesn’t matter. because i didn’t trust myself to not break anything and i didn’t want the cops called. because i am afraid, of my own voice, of my own power. and, last but not least, because i didn’t want them to see me cry.
so i sat there, i fucking sat there, as emotionless as a glass of water, i turned my ipod up to drown out his voice (because of course he didn’t stop there.) tried to remember that they’re the crazy ones. tried to remember that compassion is a good thing, even if it is woefully unpopular. mostly i just struggled not to cry. that’s all work is, these days, one lengthy struggle to not fucking cry. i held off until my lunch break, wept under the mulberry tree at the bus stop while listening to bruce springsteen. after work i got the cutest tattoo ever at my friend o’ryan’s house (pictures to follow once it’s healed) and then ate thai food and had a good time and then came home and cried in my lover’s arms. he was sympathetic and i felt better. only a little more than a month to get through, until i save my money, until i quit.