Word of the Week: unconditional (n): not limited by any conditions; absolute.
I spent about 70% of my work day today focused on just one case.
That was not the plan, though. The plan was to conduct a home visit after lunch with my client, Angie*, then take her to her doctor’s appointment; drop her off at home; and head back to the office. A rookie assumption. Honestly, truly.
I’m not sure what the social work equivalent is for the phrase “men make plans, and God laughs,” but whatever it is, that was my life today.
While I was on duty at one of our partner clinics, I got a call from my supervisor, who informed me that Angie had called the office in complete distress, trying to get in contact with me. Her phone had been stolen, and she couldn’t remember my work number.
When I got her on the phone and asked her how she was doing, she just gave me one word: “Bad.”
Angie was in the process of packing up to move, for the second time in as many weeks. She had left the home of her physically abusive ex, and went to stay with a family member. Just as she began to breathe a sigh of relief, the family member’s boyfriend started abusing her psychologically and verbally. A former drill sergeant, he was adept in making her feel like the scourge of the earth, and knew exactly which insecurities to play on. Small infractions regularly turned into extended berating.
This morning, it was the fact that she threw away some butter.
He grabbed her by the arms and threatened to snap her neck.
The cops were called, more threats were made, and formal eviction was held over her head. Rather than deal with any more foolishness, she decided to just pack her things and leave; she wanted me to come pick her up.
I drive a small SUV, and was prepared to make trunk space as necessary. This turned out to be rookie assumption number 2; someone who has been transient for 6 years doesn’t need a lot of space for their things. When I pulled up, she had a small purse, and a single garbage bag.
A moment of appreciation for Black women: In addition to all her clothes, the garbage bag also had smaller grocery bags inside of it, which contained all of her spices. Sis said she didn’t care how dire straits had gotten, she wasn’t eating anything bland.
And straits were extremely dire, because she had nowhere to go. Angie is awe-inspiringly resilient, though, and an expert finder of the silver lining. Today’s silver lining was improved optical health. She hopped in the front seat, and I could barely say hello before she exclaimed “Brit, I know you see these new glasses though!” She grinned and slightly stuck her tongue out; you know, the way you do when you’re feeling yourself.
Honestly, a mood. Same.
When we got back to the agency, we began making our way down a long list of shelters where she might be able stay for the night. Most were specifically for domestic violence (DV) survivors. None of them had open beds. Sometimes the lack of vacancy was the full truth; other times, she knew that what was really being said was that a bed wasn’t open for her specifically. Struggling with addiction–which she has for over 20 years–can result in behaviors that burn bridges with social service providers.
Around 45 minutes and 8 shelters in, she broke down crying as she was talking to the intake person on the line. “I keep telling everybody what I’m going through, and there is nothing. No beds,” she said. The worker replied that he was sorry they couldn’t help, and began to offer numbers to other shelters.
She hung up while he was still mid-sentence.
I think social service providers–myself included–sometimes forget that depending on the client and the need, resource navigation can be re-traumatizing as hell. This is especially the case for DV shelters, which often require that the client actually be interviewed on the phone during intake, for safety reasons. So what you’re really asking is for someone to rehash their trauma to a total stranger, because there is a slight chance that they’ll get what they need. And to keep doing that until the need is fulfilled.
I could tell Angie was over it, so we agreed to take a break and head to her appointment; I planned to brainstorm solutions while she was being seen by the doctor. Less than 5 minutes into the car ride, though, she figured it out. “Do you think you can call my sister?,” she asked, somewhat sheepishly. “Maybe I can stay with her for the night, or she can help me out.”
Angie’s sister, Pam*, is the quintessential responsible younger sibling who is always bailing their older sibling out. She lives in a very nice area, has a great job, and her child is a star student at an excellent school. Furthermore–and this was something Angie made sure I knew well, as she reiterated it several times–Pam recently “married very very rich, ok.” Unlike Angie, who was a mixture of happy and relieved when I’d called her earlier in the day, Pam was audibly unamused to be talking to me. She didn’t have a rude tone, or speak to me disrespectfully; she just sounded tired of having conversations of the kind I was looking to have. It was very obviously not her first time at the rodeo.
I had to assure her twice that we had exhausted all other resources before calling her; only then did she warm up a bit. And in true “big little sister” fashion, she was quite protective, asking questions about where I was at the moment with her sister and what ways I planned to help her get into safe housing after tonight’s temporary solution. Still, Pam seemed hesitant, so I asked Angie if she was ok to get on the phone with her. She was. Angie was also convinced that my phone’s volume was way too low, so she turned it all the way up.
Consequently, I didn’t have that awkward one-sided unintentional eavesdropping experience that happens when you’re around people on the phone.
I heard Pam’s voice soften once her sister started talking. She agreed to get Angie a hotel room for the night; one near her doctor’s office so we wouldn’t have to go too far after the appointment. Then, her tone briefly took on a sternness as she said something I couldn’t make out. I’m assuming she was essentially making clear that Angie could not be on the bs, because Angie swore to God himself that she would not trick out of the room or use drugs there.
Pam’s tone softened again, and she said that she would always do everything in her power to help her sister. That tomorrow was a new day, just like every day was a new day. And that every single day, she would help Angie to take the steps she needed to take to get back on track. That she loved her, and would call back later with all the details.
When she called back, though, I was the one who needed to provide details. Pam asked for the exact address for the doctor’s office, and informed me that she would be picking her sister up and taking her to the hotel once she was done with her appointment. Angie, who had already exhausted countless tissues while talking to her sister earlier, burst into tears all over again when I told her this. She practically screamed “I get to see my niece!” The star student niece, she reminded me. “She’s so beautiful; and so smart,” Angie said.
Soon enough, Pam was pulling up. I didn’t know that, because I couldn’t see anything beyond the type of tint that accompanies a level of vehicular luxury which I have yet to attain. Angie, though, only needed to squint slightly to know that the figure inside the car was her sister. Introductions were made, thank yous were exchanged, her niece was bragged on, and they went on their way.
Around 8:30pm, I played a game I’ll call “I’m In Debt Roulette” and picked up the phone for an unknown number. It was Angie. She gushed that her sister had bought her a minute phone, and this was her new number. Pam had also bought her food, left money for her to get at checkout, and bought her some clothes for tomorrow, since she was down to her last clean outfit today. I could hear her voice breaking as she tried not to cry.
From start to finish, what Pam did was unequivocally one of the purest displays of love that I have ever seen in my life. Not because of the actions themselves, but because she has clearly taken those actions countless times before, always in hopes that it would be the last time. What is sticking with me most, though, is the look on her face when she got out of the car to greet Angie. It was a mixture of relief and sorrow.
I imagine that she was relieved to see her sister safe, and at least temporarily sober; but hurt by the thought of nothing ever changing, especially since some people are only freed from addiction in death.
The unfortunate and harsh reality is that things might not change. I know Pam is painfully aware of that; but she still chooses to love, encourage and support her sister. Ad infinitum (do your Googles on that one). She will never quit on her, or stop loving her.
And that? That is more powerful than anything I could ever provide as a social worker.
* – names have been changed to protect client confidentiality, and also because you’re not about to catch me out here with ethics violations.