The phone call that changed my life
This post is about a day that changed my life--both personally and professionally. It is about the pain we all feel when we buy into the idea that we are not enough--that we have failed before we have even really started. If I were a super hero, it would be my origin story, but in the absense of having super human powers, I will simply say that this is why I do what I do.
It was a Monday and yet again, I was running into the office late. With my backpack in hand, I ran in for only a minute to grab a handful of necessities before scurrying off to my next appointment. At the time I worked for a mobile project that provided medical care and supportive services to homeless people. I was the case manager for the program and I was due at our next stop one town over, in about 15 minutes and I was easily 25 minutes away. As I crammed brochures, hygiene supplies and other odds and ends into my already stuffed backpack, I saw the blinking voicemail indicator light on my office phone. As those who know me personally can attest, there is one word that describes my feelings about voicemails--and that word is NOPE. This time it was different. I didn't like the way it was blinking at me. There was bad news on the other side of that light. I reluctantly stopped, put my backpack down and checked.
The voicemail was from the county coroner’s office. Over the weekend the body of a homeless man had been found. My business card was among his belongings, and they wanted to know if I could give them any information about the man. They gave me the man’s name (which for privacy reasons, I will not share here), and it did not sound familiar. I sat down and went through my client files and his name was not on any of them. I tore apart my office, pouring over every scrap of paper, every post it note—looking for clues. Nothing. It was as if he was a ghost, and for weeks he haunted me.
The incident shook me. As an outreach worker, knowing who was homeless was part of my job. I knew all the names of the people, the encampments and favored hangouts. I made it my business to know what people were up to. No one got by me—at least, up until that phone call, that’s what I thought.
How could I have missed him? How was it he seemed to know me but I did not know him? It did not take long for this question to turn into a painful self-criticism—that I had failed, he had somehow slipped through the cracks and it was my fault. I began to question my competence—and from there I began to question my own self-worth. “What kind of person lets this happen”, I wondered.
I found myself in a painful state of burnout, a phrase coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger as the way to describe the sense of overwhelm and exhaustion experienced by those in the helping professions. It is most often felt by those whose desire to be of service to others is driven by a strong sense of ideals—and occurs when we fall short of those ideals (or that despite our feelings of exhaustion we must soldier on lest we fall short).
There are a number of ways people combat burnout—eating well, exercising, caring for one’s spiritual needs as well as their physical needs, taking time off, spending time with family and friends etc. For me, the answer was a little of all of the above, along with developing a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness, in the form of regular meditation and reflection, helped me to see that all the stories I had built up around my "failure" were just that--stories. That I had no evidence that I had failed this man--but I had plenty of evidence that I had helped hundreds of others. That my business card being with his stuff was nothing more than a coincidence--its possible I gave it to him in passing one day, but it's also just as possible that another case worker gave it to him, or a server at the local soup kitchen. It's also just as possible that he simply found it on the ground and decided it would make a handy bookmark. I will never know the answer, and it took a long time but I was eventually okay with that.
There was one positive thing that came out of this. I had a renewed sense of urgency in my work. We know that homeless people die younger than the average person and they often die of things that in this day and age, should not prove fatal. It made me more aware of ways I could be more opportunistic and make the most of brief interactions. It made me less likely to just hand someone a list of referrals, but to sit with them and help them make a phone call. It also made me realize that while direct service is critical, we must also address policy issues. I became involved with organizations that could affect changes in policy and support the development of best practices. I learned that I did not fail anyone. I was enough, just showing up and doing the work is enough. Bit by bit we work away at the challenges that face us. Bit by bit we will get there.
If you want to know more about the work I do, or how I can help your organization...or maybe you just want to chat about self care, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.