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Learning to fly

Posted Feb 19 2010 12:00am
We must not believe the many, who say that only free people ought to be educated, but we should rather believe the philosophers who say that only the educated are free. Epictetus
She is young. Twenty-one years old. She is homeless. She is lost.

Yesterday, she muttered profanities and a pointed dig at a young teenage volunteer from a school. She was on a 'no tolerance' bar already. Her past behaviour included violent outbursts. Disrespect. This episode was just another in a litany of 'bad behaviours' leading to a string of second, third, fourth and umpteenth chances.

When the staff member involved called to tell me about the situation, I too felt lost. I know this young girl in a woman's body. She can be sweet. Funny. She likes to join the singing group and share her soprano voice. And when she does, when she shares the best of herself, she lights up. Becomes animated. Vibrant. The sullen cloud of despair that enshrouds her lifts and the sun shines.

How do we help this young girl in a woman's body who has experienced a lifetime of bad behaviour from every parental figure in her life? How do we best get her the help she needs?

Already, in her brief life she has lost two babies to 'the system'. Already she has experienced more violence, more sexual abuse than most of our society. How do we help her?

In a place where men outnumber women 10 to 1, we are not a safe environment for her. Her sexual boundaries are loose, like a sheer blouse against flesh, her boundaries are a transparent film that she eagerly lets others penetrate if only to feel, for one moment, that she is alive. Present. Connected.

We know her behaviour is not based on her being a 'bad' person. We know it is a reflection of the turmoil, the horror, the tragedy of her brief life on earth. We want to help her but to get the help she needs, we need to admit, she is not safe in our environment. She is beyond our level of care.

She doesn't want to hear it.

I walk into the office where a staff member is telling her, "Your full bar is reinstated. You must find somewhere else to stay tonight."

She is holding a dry-ice pack against her cheek where earlier, after the incident with the teenage volunteer, she had received a punch in the face from a former 'boyfriend'. At the time of the incident, we'd ask her to leave to cool off. She'd gone off property, encountered the young man in question and provoked a fight. She lost. Again.

She starts to cry. "There's nowhere I can go."

"Why don't I phone..." and the staff member lists off several other agencies where the young woman can possibly find shelter.

As the staff member lists them, the young woman shakes her head. "I'm barred from there. There too. There. And there."

There is one alternative from which she is not barred. She doesn't like that idea. It is a women only shelter.

Telling. Frightening. Saddening.

The staff member calls a counsellor in the building. "Can I bring her down?" she asks. "Will you talk with her."

He agrees.

The young girl demurs. "Can I see..." and she names off a couple of other counsellors. All of them younger than the one she thinks she's going to see.

"A. is the only one available right now," she's told.

"Oh. I thought you meant B. I like A."

A is younger, less 'forbidding', less a father figure than B. She has no trust in father figures. Speaking to a younger counsellor is not about building trust. From my past conversations with her, I know her desire to speak with a younger male is driven by her desire to spark a connection that might just give her what she wants -- another chance. A lifting of the impending bar.

I follow the staff member and the young girl out of the office towards the stairwell. We pass a young man, a client whom she knows. Suddenly, the veil of sadness lifts, the tears stop and she smiles gaily. "Hey, Jack," she calls out, a happy lilt to her voice. "I wanted to talk to you. Can you and me connect later?"

'Jack' barely stops what he's doing. He lifts a casual hand. Waves dismissively. The smile vanishes. The lilt disappears. Her shoulders slump and we move down the stairs towards the counsellors office.

And so it goes.

A young woman trapped in a cycle of abuse she cannot, does not know how to stop. Everything in her life has lead her to this place. Everything that has happened has driven her into this corner. She doesn't know how to get out. She doesn't believe she can. She doesn't believe she's worth fighting for. And so she fights. The system. The people. The world. Herself. She fights for every square inch of territory only to be driven back into the ground of self-disgust with every act. In her anger and fear, she acts out and gets barred from the very places that can help her. In her shame and sorrow, she lets herself be dragged deeper into the abyss of self-immolation.

Little relief in sight. Little hope of change unless we can find some way into her mind that will encourage her to investigate other paths, to learn how to be at home with herself in a place that is caring and respectful and kind.

To stop the pain-filled, degrading concoction of self-abuse she consumes with every thought and step and action she takes she must learn to 'love herself', or to at least accept, there is another way to find safety, to find relief from the despair and fear that consumes her.

To change the direction of the self-denigration that riddles her veins, and fogs her mind, we must first change her environment.

She is not a bad person. She is a human being with bad behaviour because her life has taught her, 'this' is the way the world works. This is all she can do to get the attention she craves. This is all she's worth.

Within her, the truth hides, an unsettling fissure of fear that riles her into discord. The truth is lost beneath the years of abuse piled upon her young shoulders. The truth is buried beneath a past of such despicable pall she cannot bear to look at it and drugs herself instead with the elixir of the street. Sex, drugs and sadly little rock 'n roll of the musical kind except in those moments when she joins in with a group of singers and lets her voice be heard. The rest, the rest is just the rock 'n roll of a furtive sex charged encounter with the one drug she knows will help her feel, for just one moment, that she is part of the human race. Part of something bigger than the torrid squalor and despair of her life on the street.

She is lost. And no one can find her or help her find herself until she finds a place to breathe freely. To live without the need of finding men to open up to, to expose herself to, to be penetrated by. To quit acting out she must quit putting out the flame of her humanity buried deep within her.

It is the sad reality for the young girls we serve. 'Relationships' become their raison d'etre. Their ticket 'out'. Their relationships are their cover-up. Their brief encounters the robe they wrap themselves in to find some sense of meaning, some sense of who they are in a place where they have lost all sense of being someone deserving of a better place.

Embraced in the arms of their street-driven encounters, the sins of their pasts coil around them, enshrouding their view of the world in a mist of false hope and rosy horizons. Wrapped up in a man, they wait for 'happily-ever-after' to reveal itself on the street out of hopelessness.

And they fall.

Yesterday, to help me understand how best to help this young woman, I checked with several front-line staff, as well as our client advocate.

"What can we do?" I asked.

There are programs, facilities she can attend that can help her, they told me. We've met with her, taken her to a couple of off-site meetings, but, right now, she is unwilling to go anyplace but here. Here is where she can find the largest supply of that drug that continues to rape her of everything she's worth.

We cannot help her without first separating her from this place.

We can only help her by forcing her hand, by taking her to the edge of abyss where she has no alternative but to fall. And in her fall, we pray she will reach out and ask for help. We pray she will learn to fly free.
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