Today, I took a trip part-way down the rabbit hole with one of my clients, a lost and disturbed young man who seems to be, with each passing day, losing his grip on reality. His story, though by no means completely unique among the population of children who spend their lives growing up in the custody of the Department of Human Services, has been haunting me for months, and I fear that the denouement is fast approaching. He has endured indignities that no human being should have to face; he was abused terribly as toddler, then adopted into a family where he suffered further mistreatment. He has lost his entire biological family, and has been passed endlessly from foster homes to psychiatric hospitals to residential treatment facilities to group homes.
I have tried to be a stabilizing force in his life, and a few months ago, he thanked me over email for being one of the few people who has ever really cared about him. Now, though, he seems to be slipping further and further into some kind of permanent delusion, and all he wanted when I spoke to him this afternoon was to get on a bus and leave for the city where he believes his biological family still lives, waiting for him, like a mirage.
Working in child welfare is, frequently, the embodiment of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The underlying social and economic issues that give rise to abuse, neglect and mistreatment of children are so ingrained in us all, etched so deeply into the fabric of our culture, that it’s virtually impossible to imagine a time when those of us in this field will stop swimming in the same circles, in the same fishbowl, toward the same unattainable goal.
I have had the same conversation with my troubled client at least a dozen times in the past few months, as I have tried in vain to help him understand the value of his life, the importance of making good decisions about his physical and mental health (he has several serious diagnoses.) But the monologue is getting stale, and my conviction is starting to flag. I am scared for his life, and I am tired. I don’t know what else to do for him. To paraphrase a line from LIMBO, one of my favorite films, “Sometimes, you can’t save someone.”
I have been working in child welfare for nine years. It happened by accident. Being in the field has permitted me an opportunity to feel like I am touching lives, making a difference and sometimes even getting at some of the huge social issues that enrage me. But today, after endless phone conversations with my client which left me wanting to stick my head in the toilet and flush, I am wondering why, and for how much longer.
There is a tectonic shift happening underfoot. I have worked hard to reclaim so much of myself since my illness, and the miracle in Jackson continues to reverberate and provoke. There is an efficacy to what I feel myself capable of doing in the world of young adult cancer that I simply don’t know if I possess in relation to my work in child welfare. All of us who fight this battle struggle so profoundly and tirelessly, for an inch of progress, for the satisfaction of affecting one individual life in an unending current of suffering. I simply cannot see an endpoint.
Writing and agitating about young adult cancer feels different. There is a theory of charting out a professional course that says, “Go with what you know.” For nine years, I have toiled in a universe that I have come to understand, but which I have never been a part of. Whether because of my color, my background, my education, I can never fully know the lives of my clients and their families. I will forever be on the outside, looking in.
What, then, would it look like, to transform the sense of belonging and insight and community that I have gained from the world of young adult cancer, into a mission – to channel it into efforts to change the way those who come after me go through this experience? I am really not sure, but I am eager to find out. To get out of the fishbowl, and into a place where I can work toward clear change, where there is actually a possibility of one day achieving something better for those who are most desperately in need of hope.
Suffering cannot be quantified. My client’s pain is no greater or lesser than the next 35 year old woman who walks into an oncologist’s office and is told she has Stage III ovarian cancer. But perhaps it is time to go with what I know.