Thursday, July 02, 2015

Who Helps the Helpers?: One Outreach Worker's Perspectic on the Healing Power of Compassion

12 years ago I entered a building on the corner of 9th and Oak in PDX. There was a sign hanging that read "The Streets Are Not The End Of The Road." I had no idea at the time how true that was for me. For me, the streets were just the beginning. 

When I was 18 I felt lost, alone, and confused. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew every one's business, had just graduated high school, and my best friend had moved out of state for her recruitment into the Navy. Due to some adolescent trauma I spent most of my high school years evading thinking about the future by spending all my time with my BFF...being not at home. I didn't want to go to college, but I signed up because it's what  everyone else was doing and I didn't want to embarrass my family by admitting I had never thought about it before, so when my mom pressured me I consented to admit to a local community college. 

My mother had recognized my inability to comprehend the gravity of change that was happening and encouraged me to sign up for a Bridges class. A class meant to help students who couldn't hack it in college otherwise, teaching them to process change and prepare for the future. I was embarrassed at the thought of it until I left my placement tests crying because I placed in all high school level classes, and I didn't even want to be there. I wanted my old life of escapism, but my best friend (mode of escapism) moved away and my mom wouldn't give up on me. She forced me to get a job, enroll in school, and take the class for people who struggled with change, convincing me with the "6 free credits" slogan. 

There were only 6 of us in the class. We spent our time taking personality tests and job surveys to find where we might best fit. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The only thing I knew was that I was miserable, wanted to disappear, didn't know how to vocalize my pain, and didn’t trust anyone or myself or my future. I was certain I would spend my life in a hidden misery so I spent most of my class hours imagining myself disappearing and secretly hoping it would happen. Then my pointless life and internal suffering would end, without me having to find the courage to ask for help, something I found horribly embarrassing. Then one day we were given an assignment to complete a group project, a service project, both of which sounded horrible. 

There was this annoying, loud mouthed (not really, I just wanted to do nothing and he was spoiling my plans) student in the class who insisted we help the homeless in some way. His church had done it before and he thought it would be easy. I'm assuming the other 4 students felt like I did, didn't care, just wanted to get it over with, because no one agreed or disagreed, and the student started making plans. I admitted within myself I found the idea intriguing. I had never personally met a homeless person before, but as a kid I had always wondered why no one ever acknowledged their existence. I saw people walk right by them all the time downtown, clearly able to see they were in need, but pretended like they couldn't see them or their problems didn't exist or something. Much how I felt others were pretending to not see me, and I them. 

It was only one night. My class went to what was The Greenhouse Day in CafĂ© and Shelter (now extinct) and did some sort of group or game that I don't even remember. All I remember is feeling like I finally fit in someplace. Like that elf guy in Rudolf when he finds the island of misfit toys. The youth didn't know how I felt. They didn't know that their willingness to share how afraid they felt every night and how invisible and alone they felt, even in a crowd, penetrated my soul and made me see I wasn't alone. 

The ONLY thing I did that night was ask one kid how his day was, and ignorantly and bluntly told him I thought he was lying when he told me he was "good." I knew full well how to tell that lie, and recognized the attempt to believe it. But then something strange happened that had never happened before. He said I was right, and thanked me for my sincerity and for paying attention when I didn't have to. And then we had normal conversation until it was time for me to go. 

I left wishing I was brave enough to runway. Not from my family, but from the hurt I was comfortable in. The idea of not knowing loneliness scared me more than being miserable because it was a pain I knew. I wanted to run away. But I couldn't. I wanted to admit I needed someone to ask me how I was doing and genuinely want to know. I wanted to let my guard down, just for a second. 

I asked if I could come back and volunteer. 

All I did was serve food like hummus, which at the time I swore I'd never eat because it looked like orphanage food. (I don't understand my prejudice there...) I served food and played card games with the youth that went there. And every day I watched youth come to the drop-in center, surrender their weapons, and enter, admitting they were hungry for food and love from anyone willing to give it.

I thought to myself: "If they can do it, so can I." And then I did. Because they did. 

That was just the beginning. 

Everyone thinks I helped them, but really they helped me. They still do.