The Boundaries of Compassion?

by Alex Bettencourt

Note: this blog entry contains descriptions of violence and assault that may be distasteful and triggery.

I work a difficult day job. I work with the lowest of the low, the people who, in the eyes of modern society, are disposable, forgettable, and beyond any type salvation, be it spiritual, personal, professional, or societal. It is a dangerous environment to be a part of in all interpretations—physical, emotional, spiritual, and even professional. I have had my life threatened, the lives of my family threatened, my health has been compromised, my professional reputation and credibility has been attacked, I’ve witnessed all manner of violence and crime, and, to top it all off, I don’t get paid that well for it. In fact, my field is the lowest paid field in the umbrella of human services. I made almost twice as much when I worked in the private sector. I am almost constantly frustrated, emotionally exhausted, and despairing of both what my clients do and what they’ve been through.

And yet, there is meaning. I am fascinated by the way many other pagans and polytheists write about their devotional lives. Many bloggers I read talk at length about their devotional work via their altars or meditative work or writing or what-have-you, which is all very good and important work. Then, in the next breath, they often say something like ‘..and then I go to work’. I can’t relate to that at ALL. My work IS my Work. I do not work in this field by accident or happenstance—it was divinely arranged and inspired and is one of the ways I bring the vision of my God into being in this world. It’s nice [really nice] that I get a paycheck out of it, but the paycheck is only the bonus of working His will among the people who need it the most.

It’s not easy and it has taken me a long time to come to terms with the realities of my chosen field. I hardly ever see the benefits of what I do—most of the change, if it happens, in my clients will come long after they have left me. With that in mind, there is an incredibly low success rate in my field—the success of treatment in my field is about 10%. My clients, past and present, die on a regular basis as a result of their behaviors and lifestyle. Many, if not most, of my clients do not want treatment, but some outside force is compelling them to be present in a program that I work at. And, I, as the counselor/service provider, am to blame for all their problems both imagined and real. Can’t make a phone call right now? Fuck you. Didn’t get me placement in the program I wanted to go to? I hope you die, you fucking cunt. I’m being discharged because I’ve been stealing from other residents and using illicit substances? I hope your family gets shot. Nurses won’t give me more methadone? You better look over your shoulder when you’re walking down the street, bitch. I’m not kidding or exaggerating with any of that—those are all real responses I have gotten from clients. I’ve had clients proposition me, offer me bribes, and actively work to get me fired. It’s a hell of a ride and it’s exhausting.

I spent a very long, very draining year working in acute care. Most of my experience in this field has been with long-term care. Clients are out of active crisis, are medically stable, and the focus is on long-term problem solving in terms of getting services arranged, providing rehabilitation, and taking care of mental health issues that usually emerge. When the opportunity arrived for me to go work on a a 70-bed acute care unit, I jumped on it. I needed a change and I had always wanted to work in acute care because that it where the process in my field starts. Well, that’s where it starts occasionally, which I soon learned.

The unit I worked at is fairly notorious in my state. It is one of two ‘public’ acute care units, meaning that you can essentially walk in off the street and, provided you have a picture ID and meet the medical criteria [a positive urine screen for substances, active intoxication, or active withdrawal], you’re in. It also was low security despite having armed guards and it was considered an ‘easy’ acute care unit—it wasn’t difficult to sneak stuff in, either via ‘fishing’ out the window, working a scam to send someone out the door and sneak them back in, or having a well-placed drop-off. It was in a constant state of disrepair, there was always at least one room quarantined due to bedbugs or scabies, and I Saw Some Shit. Among numerous incidences was a stabbing in the men’s bathroom via a shiv a client had made out of part of his bed, a small prostitution ring being run out of a bedroom, a client overdosing right in front of me [yes, people would sneak drugs into detox], almost daily robberies, and more than one fight either over a difference in racial background or gang affiliation. The clientele largely didn’t want the services or opportunities we offered, they just wanted a break from whatever it was they were doing on the outside. It sounds harsh and jaded, but it’s the truth.

Working there was probably the largest test of my faith that I have ever faced. I couldn’t have quantified it before [even though I did a very similar job in the same field] but looking people who have done awful, horrible things to others and offering them help and embodying the attitude of ‘I care about you’ is the most challenging thing I have ever undertaken in this life time. I have sat across from murderers, rapists, arsonist, shot-callers for gangs, and career criminals and told them that they are worth living a different life and that I believe that they can change.

I’m lucky that I had an incredible role model in my boss. She was, and is, amazing. I remember sitting with her with clients and she would hear what they had to say about themselves or what they had done or why they were there and not once did I ever get the feeling that she was sickened, frightened, or frustrated by them. She never lost her patience or her compassion and she was the one that many repeat clients sought out because she never once shamed anyone for the perceived failure that brought them back to the unit.

After a year, I had seen enough. I found myself in a place where I did not believe I could help the clients, I had lost sight of their humanity, and the very existence of my coworkers made me angry. I dreaded going in each day and found excuses to not be there or to leave early. So, I transferred off the unit to a different program. For awhile, I felt like a failure. I felt weak and like I wasn’t as resilient enough to do the Work. However, I’ve come to a different place on that. I see now that I am really not meant for that environment. I am meant for long-term care where relationships and trust are developed..and I’m satisfied with that.

I had a huge moment of clarity this week which brings me to the rough point of this entry, in a roundabout way. One of the sad realities of my line of work is that you keep up with former clients via the police blotter. With only a 10% treatment success rate, it’s not a surprise to see clients repeating past behavior. So, I was checking out the local police department’s crime reports and I see the name of a client that I had a decent rapport with. He’d been to the unit probably fifteen to twenty times in the year I worked there and, while it was clear he was not ready to change, he always listened to what you said and participated in the educational and therapeutic groups we ran. Out of sheer curiosity, I googled him and his name popped up as a level 3 sex offender.

While that might be shocking in other professions, it’s par for the course in mine. It was only noted when it might affect placement or if there had been an incident on the unit with the client in a past admission. I hadn’t known this particular client was a registered sex offender and I clicked on his database entry and found myself shocked. Before I tell you why, I will say that it is very difficult to shock me any more. I’ve long believed that part of working in my field is that you turn off part of your humanity to maintain your own sanity.

He had a lengthy record of offenses against minors, but that in and of itself wasn’t the shocking part for me. Distasteful and sad, yes, but shocking, not really. What left me with my jaw hanging open was that he had, among many other sex offenses, been convicted of over twenty charges of rape and abuse of child, on one day. What that breaks down to is that he perpetrated some sort of sexual abuse against either one child on over twenty different occasions that the prosecutor could prove, or he assaulted over twenty different children and was found guilty of all of them. The charge of ‘rape and abuse of a child’ has been refined in my state to ‘rape and abuse of a person over/under 14 years of age’, so there’s no way of knowing how old the victim(s) were, but that does nothing to soften the enormity of his criminal record.

I was talking to a friend that night and I had told him about what I had seen. I said something to the affect of that, had I been the judge, my judgment would have been along the lines of ‘what the fuck were you thinking?’. I sat ruminating on this for awhile and had some interesting insight.

The largest part of my reaction was absolute despair. Society is just fucking FAILING, both in that an individual has grown up to believe that doing the things he was convicted of repeatedly is somehow a version of ‘normal’ and that the justice system has failed in taking measures to ensure that this person does not reoffend.

The hardest part was that, for several days, I couldn’t find my compassion and that was downright scary. My experience in this field has been that if you cannot access compassion, you will have a damn hard time creating a therapeutic relationship to your client. I managed to get through the year at the acute care unit by almost constantly reminding myself that my clients were sick and suffering and were not a product of a moral failing on their part. But I couldn’t feel that way towards this guy. What he did/does is monstrous and is akin to dropping a nuclear bomb into a puddle—it’s not even a question of ripples, it’s more about how many people are going to get hit by the shrapnel.

I had this random thought the other day, though. I thought ‘what would Mr. Mister do?’. My boss on the acute care unit was amazing. She is a rather recent immigrant who taught herself English and got her Masters in the field before coming to my company. She almost died on the job due to a stroke that happened in her office and, once she recovered, she came back to continue her work. The closest I ever saw to her being frustrated with a client was when she would come into the work room and sit down to fill out paperwork about an encounter she had just had. She would shake her head and say ‘that person is really, really sick’, and that would be the end of it. She really, truly believed that, too—it wasn’t something she just said to cover her feelings and she demonstrated this with every single interaction with every damn client that crossed her path. It continues to amaze me that she is able to do that in the face of what those clients bring to the table. Not coincidentally, she is a woman of deep faith and, in retrospect, it is reflected in how she relates to those who came to the unit.

I thought a lot about this and it hit me out of the blue a day or two after that and I felt kind of silly because it is so glaringly obvious, at least to me. Part of my Work is to offer the opportunity of redemption and to meet the client where they are at, with all of their baggage and records and flaws and behaviors that drive me up the wall, with compassion. In a twisted way, it is providing an outside source of love for the unlovable, despite how terrible they may look from the outside. I’ve seen this in action, too, and never realized it until I thought about it.

I tried to think about what Mr. Mister would do with a person who had done such horrible things. I think He would consider them and put a great deal of thought into who they are as a person and as a being that is greater than their body. I think He would dig and dig and dig until He found where their humanity lay, no matter how small a kernel that might be, and He would foster it and encourage it to grow. To my understanding, I don’t think He believes in lost causes. I think He can see that value in anything and anyone and find some way to make that work for Him, even if it is not entirely what He wants or envisioned. He doesn’t view anything as a waste, only as an opportunity to create something, anything, that might further whatever vision it is that He has for this world and what lays beyond it.

That’s not to say that He’s all about forgiveness. I believe that He has a long memory and that He believes in consequences for actions, both in the divine sense and the mortal sense. I don’t think that Him finding use for the person who has done the most revolting things means He is okay with those actions, but merely says that He does not believe that this person is beyond His care.

I will admit that this is something I have struggled with, not so much as how it relates to other people, but to how it relates to me. If my God could somehow make it work for Himself that a person who has treated innocents in such a vile and repulsive manner is worth investing some kind of effort in, then why is it a stretch to believe that He would invest at least the same amount into me no matter how much I feel like I am failing Him on a regular basis? It has something I have both been giving a lot of thought to the last couple of days and running the hell away from, because I am scared of the answer.

But, it reminds me of why He has me do what I do. It’s not my job to forgive and provide absolution for the actions of my clients, but it is my Job to provide hope and compassion and faith. I have to bring that to the people who need it most—to provide them with the vision that they are not beyond all hope, no matter what they’ve done, and that I have faith in them that they can take the next right step and do the next right thing even if it doesn’t happen right away. For the tree to grow, the seed has to be planted and it has to start somewhere. If Mr. Mister can have faith the seed He has planted in me [heh] can grow despite my fuck-ups and fears and inability to trust or do the most basic of devotional activities, then why can’t I reflect that in how I treat humans who arguably need it more than I do? I can’t really argue with that at all and, in the last few days, it has really affected my outlook on how I do my Work and my work.

I don’t know. It amuses me in a perverse way that one click on the internets has spawned so much deep thought for me and so many personal revelations. It’s been a busy week inside my head and, in a twisted way, I am happy to have had the opportunity to think all of this through. It has certainly provided me a respite from the general chaos that is my paycheck-getting and that’s kind of refreshing. I am, as I always am even when I don’t see it, incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed far beyond anything that I could ever have imagined.

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