The Woman Beneath the Recovery Participant

About a month ago, the place I work for held a fundraising event in which we told the pieced together story of the kind of woman who might find herself sexually exploited, addicted to drugs, and in need of a recovery home.  I was in charge of pressing play for the first part of her story, in which two actresses told the story of how they were sexually abused as children, tricked, doped, raped, sold, etc, and wound up gazing out of windows wondering “Doesn’t anyone see me?”

The people who went through the experience were…overwhelmed.  I forget sometimes that the gruesome reality of the women I work with is not a common thought space for many people.  I spoke with one woman afterward who was struggling to process the fact that these sorts of things happen (and I tried not to scream SOME VERSION OF THIS IS SUPER COMMON, YOU HAVE JUST BEEN PRIVILEGED ENOUGH NOT TO KNOW IT), and I realized she was kind of mentally thinking of our women as martyrs.  Or victims.  As someone Other and Pitiable.

It made me realize that what I really want people to know is that these women are women.  They’re human!  They have personalities that delight and frustrate me.  One participant likes my Harry Potter references, and another will always say, “Oh my God, NERDS,” and then we nod and high-five each other.  That same mocking participant UTTERLY geeks out about Vampire Diaries and can imitate the voice and posture of every character on the show.

Another is incredibly organized, and when we went on a picnic outing, she was the only one who brought something to share.  That something was gorgeous plastic plates, utensils, pita bread with homemade dip and sun-dried tomatoes.  Another woman struggles with depression, but we decided to try to learn Korean together, so whenever I say “An-yong!” to her, she breaks into the cutest giggles.

Another decided she wanted to apply for a job (her first ever), so she researched the hell out of what to wear/say/do, and had me ask her questions from a list of fifty she’d printed out and answered.  She got the job despite laying down very strict time boundaries because her effort was apparent.

Another repeatedly assures us that she knows cannibalism is wrong but “I just want to eat my baby so bad.  HIS CHEEKS.”  Another wanders listlessly around until you meet her eye.  Then she smiles peacefully at you and wanders the other way.  Another is an over-achiever, the only one interested in completing my daily spelling lists because “It feels so good to be good at something.”

They all revolted when they thought someone wasn’t getting paid enough for her sewing work, and they were all going to donate some of theirs to make up for it.  Another participated in a slam poetry reading at a hipster coffee shop, and at every person before her, she got paler and paler.  She performed amazingly, but insisted we immediately leave because she thought she was going to throw up.

Another grows black flowers.  Another over-tans.  Another comments about how good someone looks “when you draw your eyebrows on.”  Another can’t process quickly in a big group.  Another has to wear our Ugly Shirt often because she runs out of the house last minute in ill-fitting shirts.  Another keeps falling in love with construction workers named Shawn.  Another, another, another…

Some of the stories they tell churn even my hardened stomach.  These are women who have been raised by abusive parents, who have had DESPICABLE things done to them over and over by multiple and varied people, who have DONE despicable things to others as well.  They are wracked by guilt and shame and worthlessness, and they cling to the tiniest hope that maybe they can change their lives into something entirely new so that their kid won’t live through what they did.  They fail and they succeed…and they tell jokes, and they welcomed me, and they’re silly and kind and vindictive and self-deprecating and smart as hell.

I really love them.  Not because of what they’ve gone through.  But because they are each of them beautifully unique humans who deserve to be known and loved and appreciated for who they are underneath all their bad decisions and awful circumstances.

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A Canadian Update (4 Months in)

I’ve been living in Vancouver for about four months now, and I’ve been experiencing all of the usual Moving to a New Place things: excitement, loneliness, expansiveness, depression, and at weird times, normalcy.  But the last couple weeks have been pretty good, and I thought I’d share a few things that made it so!

  1.  I moved into my own apartment!  I have my own place, and I LOVE IT.  I moved into my coworkers’ old place, so I had three months to visit and mentally map out what I needed to buy and how I wanted to arrange things.  That helped me space out some big purchases (the couch that Luciana and Giorgos own, the chair that all my Greek cat friends own, all of my possessions are sentimental, etc) before finding out that my awesome coworker/family gave me several of the pricey-but-not-personal things like a TV, refrigerator, kitchen supplies, bed, and dining room table.

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    GUYS.  This is the first time in 30 years that I have furnished my own place with actual furniture that did not come from a second-hand store.  When I was in Peoria in the summer of 2017, I started to feel a creeping Old Person desire for security and possessions and a HOME.  And I have one now!  I LOVE IT.  It’s decorated with just the right balance of “I bought those pillow covers in Cappadocia” and “Why yes, there IS a color scheme.”

  2. I’m once more very into the World Cup!  Now that I’ve got my own place with my own television, I’ve been watching every game since the quarter finals.  This built to a very fun moment when I invited Abi, my English coworker, and her husband over to mine to watch the England/Croatia game.  This was especially monumental because, as I am no longer living in a safe house, I could invite a man into my home!  England lost, but I have FRIENDS, so it was a win for me.
  3. My one true goal for living in Vancouver was accomplished:  I joined a Dungeons and Dragons group!  I politely yelled my desire into a Meetup online, found some other women who were interested in a beginner’s group, and after waiting MONTHS with only one meeting over drinks to establish we aren’t creeps, we FINALLY PLAYED.  I’m over the moon about this.  It was everything I wanted.  I played as a criminal halfling who is loyal to no one but her friends (“Sounds like you were playing by our street life” said one participant when I told her.  “Oh my God, I WAS,” I said). The DM had a similar sense of humor as me, so she let me pick up snake eggs and put them in potions while my quest-mates were rolling their eyes because we had a poisoned victim to save.  However, I won them over with Rory and wine, so everyone left four hours later very happy and willing to play again.  I hope very much this becomes a regular occurrence!!
  4. I started doing Story Times at program.  We’ve realized that our women, while very good at caring for their children, don’t really know how to play with them (since they mostly did not have a childhood that included play themselves).  Somehow it took me weeks of conversations about finding a volunteer to teach them how to sing with their kids before I remembered, “I was a children’s librarian for two years.”  So now on Friday afternoons I bring a bunch of books from the library, print out sheets with songs and rhymes, and we all sit in a circle and I read stories (that put one participant to sleep because “Your voice is just so peaceful”) and we sing songs, and one baby in particular leans forward and looks at me with wondering eyes.  I REALLY enjoyed it, and I’m delighted to find one more way in which I can use my past experiences to strengthen my present.

Those are some of the highlights from my life right now!  It’s still overwhelming, and I still get lonely for a bunch of people, but this week at least, I felt really happy.

A Day in the Life

I decided not to post regularly about my time in Vancouver the way I did in Athens, because honestly, it began to feel like a burden as I succombed to my compulsion to impress people.  But I do want to share a little picture of what my life is like, so here’s a snapshot of my work experiences this past month!

I am the program manager of a recovery program for women with addictions who have been sexually exploited, which means that on paper, I’m responsible for making sure the facilitators deliver our classes effectively.  In actuality, every day is a new adventure.  I’m also co-house director of the second stage house, which means I share responsibility for the two women and one child currently in that house.  It is not a lot of responsibility until it is.  But nothing can really capture what a “typical” day looks like unless I give you a moment-by-moment breakdown.  Here’s a random day from a while ago:

I was woken up by my morning facilitator telling me she would be late to work.  When I got to the office, the woman who tested positive for opiates yesterday had solved the mystery by citing numerous examples of people testing positive for opiate use after eating a poppyseed bagel, which she had done.  I went in the bathroom with her to get a second urine test, which came back clean.  I wrote up an incident report, sent it to her social worker, and reiterated that so long as she kept testing clean this would be viewed as a bagel incident.

I led the AA devotionals by myself, then left the office with one participant to go downtown to Victim Services in the courthouse.  She filled out paperwork for a refund for medical expenses incurred when fleeing her pimp and confirmed the court date for her testifying against him.  We drove back to the office, and she made fun of me for not knowing a Justin Bieber song.  When I said I was behind on pop culture because I’d been in Greece for two years, she said the song was three years old.

Three people stopped me as I re-entered the office, and there was a note on my desk saying the women were out of coffee and “coffee whitener,” so I snagged the opportunity to drive to Safeway for a few minutes of peace and for a tea latte from the Starbucks in the grocery store.

Then two of my bosses pulled the participant with daughter problems (who skipped program yesterday without calling) into a meeting.  We all agreed that these temporary visits were more damaging than helpful, and that we would work toward her becoming healthy enough to bring her daughter into full-time care at a later date.  But that meant getting her daughter’s father involved, so we planned for a big meet up at a separate location on Thursday morning.  I was assigned babysitting duty at the house while that happens, thus wiping out my planned Thursday morning.

I went home and saw that my new housemate (who had said she was too sick to come in to program today) wasn’t there.  I texted, asking where she was, but by 10:00 she hadn’t come home or responded.  I conferred with my co-house director and my boss and texted her a final time to tell her we were setting the alarm and would see her tomorrow.  I went to bed worrying she had relapsed and wondering where she was.

It’s all very spontaneous and requires an enormous amount of emotional intuition, but I am loving the challenges.  It’s incredibly draining sometimes, but my housemates respect my need to spend most of every night in my room with my cat, so it hasn’t yet been overwhelming.  However, the effort is more than worth it when I have moments like a woman comes into my office to share an emotional breakthrough she had with a genuine smile covering her face.

I love the women.  They’re so smart and funny and hurt and earnest.  It is INCREDIBLY wonderful to speak the same language and develop relationships that go beyond body language.  I genuinely like them all and enjoy spending my days with them.  Their commitment and their honesty about their failures is incredibly refreshing to me, and I wish everyone had the opportunity to know them the way I do.

So for anyone wondering:  that’s my life!

 

How Black Sails Equipped Me With the Empathy Necessary for My New Job

I am rewatching Black Sails with a coworker, and I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the show’s themes and my work with women recovering from sexual exploitation and addictions.

The overarching question of Black Sails is:  which is worse, piracy or civilization?  History has made pirates into monsters, but the show is determined to make us see that civilization deliberately painted them that way, because civilized people need someone to point to and say: at least I’m not like THEM.  To be fair, the pirates often do monstrous things.  But civilization did monstrous things as well, only they had the resources to cover them up or blame someone else.

I see a lot of similarities in how the world views women who are prostitutes and/or addicts.  It’s unfortunately common to insult or dismiss them, to call them names or use them as examples of The Bad (I’m looking at you, Proverbs).  Adding addiction to the mix just makes it easier to alienate people and make monsters out of them.  At least we’re not like that, we think.

A while ago, I had a conversation with a friend about fostering.  I had always thought the hardest part of fostering would be knowing the relationship was temporary.  My friend said that the hardest part was that often you were not just saying goodbye to a child, you were sending it back into a bad situation.  I agreed with her, and then on my first day at my new job, I saw the “bad situation” children are sent back to.

On that day, a woman in the program tested positive during our random drug screening.  We had to call in her social worker and determine what was to be done with her child.  The woman was devastated, angry at herself for letting her addiction get the better of her, furious that she had jeopardized her relationship with her child for the sake of a temporary high.  An extraordinary solution was found, and since then I’ve had a lot of one-on-one time with the mother and child.  The thing is, she’s a great mother 90% of the time.  She’s attentive and loving and protective.  And sometimes she gets high and is wholly incapable of caring for her child.  I’m not at all advocating that women with addictions should keep their children no matter what.  But the story became much more complicated.

Perhaps it sounds silly to equate pirates with addicts, but if you think that then I have to assume you haven’t seen Black Sails.  Stories matter, and when we make addicts into monsters, they internalize that role.  Both the pirates in a tv show and the women I work with on a daily basis have done some truly horrific and criminal things.  But that is not all that they are, and when those are the stories we tell, we erase the goodness in them and the potential for recovery.

So we have to ask ourselves: why do we tell these stories?  To hide our worst impulses?  To assure ourselves that even though we lost our temper with our kid, at least we didn’t do this?  To make our sexual decisions seem better because at least we didn’t do that?  To minimize our own selfishness and pettiness and vindictiveness?  The thing that Black Sails tells us over and over again is this:  civilization and pirates are not all that different.  We all have the same dark impulses when pushed into a desperate corner.  And if we haven’t yet been pushed into that desperate corner, the least we can do is thank God for our privilege and practice empathy for those that made a bad decision in a bad situation.

Society spins narratives to make sense of the world and our role within it.  As someone who has always fared well from those narratives, I haven’t had to question them.  But there are women and men who live behind the labels “prostitute” and “addict,” and if we don’t take the time to understand their reality and see them as whole people with stories and contexts and futures, we make them into monsters.  And isn’t that a monstrous thing to do?