(Note: The recounting of this event is, to the best of my knowledge as accurate as it can be, as I am still processing the experience.)
I have been helping someone get back into their home who has had a history of post Katrina related trauma. This person is also prone to senility/PTSD and unfortunately, and I perceive, too proud to admit it.
This elder whom I had been helping, had from the beginning, a tendency, a pattern which I identified as 1. becoming overwhelmed easily when being asked for details associated with getting the rebuilding process in motion, (they would prefer to speak of the wrongs done to them); 2. becoming stressed out and agitated; 3. "forgetting" what they had recently said, done, or where they had placed an important paper(s). For the last month, I grappled with setting appropriate boundaries with this person in regards to their pattern of forgetting and then blaming me.
First, I would receive angry calls blaming me for what was ever lost, demanding I drop everything I was doing, drive across the city and return what I had taken. I would let them know that I did not handle what was in question or was not a part of the interaction. Later, I would receive a call back with apologies and explanations of what had happened.
I made it clear to them when they did this, if I did not have anything to do with what was in question, I would not respond to their calls. This worked for a time and in the space of my not calling back, it would be found and apologetic messages would be left.
Lately, this became such a frequent occurrence, that before leaving after helping, I would clearly state where such and such was placed after we worked on it (only to have them, full of angry pride, yell at me, telling me that "they were not stupid"). Patiently and lovingly, I took calls from morning til night, setting appropriate times when I could pick up the phone to talk, when the phone would be turned off, and I would be resting.
As their stress levels increased so did the phone calls. In the morning (for instance this morning) I would turn on the phone and find 5 messages. 3 of the calls were made consecutively at 12:18 a.m.!) Understanding that they were clearly stressed out, suffering from PTSD and overwhelmed, I would allow for this and other behaviors. (Such as frequent outbursts of anger, paranoia, and agitation).
Because it was important for this elder to feel and be in control of their life, even though the decisions made by them - often due to suspicion and fear (due to past abuse) and symptoms I believe were signs of onset of senility, which seemed to be worsened by stress - made doing my work twice as hard - I opened myself and allowed for the inconvenience, costs, gas and time. I believed then and as I do now, that helping to rebuild in New Orleans is not just about re-building the house. It is even more about building trust, hope, and healing hearts, and minds.
In this last week, this elder finally began to trust me enough to allow me to look through papers and documents. As a result, I was able to help get appointments, found out that they did in fact, receive their "Road Home Recovery Award" letter - in FEBRUARY - and helped to get the necessary documents together so that stage 2 with many other agencies could be achieved. Each time I found something that need further research on my part and/or phone calls, I would drive up to the UPS store to make copies, even if the document was non-essential, as this elder had been deceived on numerous occasions in the past and rebuilding trust was essential part of my role in their life. I deeply understood what was occurring, what actions were needed, and I brought, to the best of my ability, to these experiences, mindfulness, respect, compassion, and patience.
Today, I made copies of things I could work on Sunday for this elder. I had gone to the library in Metairie in the morning, made copies of the forms for obtaining a copy of a birth certificate from another state, and then helped them to fill out the paperwork. I then spent hours sorting through bags of numerous papers, putting them into a folder and a separate large envelope which I had purchased. I wrote on the various documents what they were and when done, we put the envelope/folder into the trunk of the car for safe keeping. I was there for about 4 hours just achieving these tasks. When finished, I wrote out a detailed schedule of what phone calls needed to be made on Monday, to whom, and why. Even after I had explained this, I would be asked repeatedly minutes later the same question, which made it clear to me that what had just been explained had been forgotten.
Then I drove this elder across town to make a copy of the Road Home Award letter at the Office Depot so that on Monday, I could explain what it all meant and what they needed to do next. I did not have enough money for all 20 pages and as the first four explained what the next 16 meant these 4 were not the vitally important documents. I had decided that the other 16 pages were very important, so I just copied the 16 pages and they had the original important documents in their possession. I kept the other 4 pages until Monday to help me review what was needed next. As this elder had just bought 2 sodas and kept everyone in line waiting at the gas station for close to 10 minutes looking for the change to pay for the drinks, I did not ask for money for the 4 extra copies. I just wrongly assumed that by now this elder trusted me with the less "essential" documents and that this would be okay without asking permission to do so or if they had money for the extra pages. My intention was to read these 4 pages and the 16 page document I had copied as to be ready for explanation on Monday when we met again.
As previously witnessed, this elder has tendency to become obsessed with the smallest details which are not in their control. I mistakenly believed that we had developed a trust and that these 4 pages could safely be left in my hands for a day and a half. I was wrong. They became obsessed with these 4 pages. So I gave the 4 pages back and clearly stated that I would not have time again to work on them until sometime next week after we made copies of the 4 pages. After yelling at me and asking me why didn't I make the copies when we were there, and my explaining, she gave the pages back to me and I left.
I went to visit another family, I have not had time for this family as this elder had been monopolizing my time (my choice - I am no victim). Whilst I was visiting, there were 3 phone calls (which I chose to not answer as it was time for this family to receive my attention). When the visit was over and I checked my messages, the first call concerned a 'cancelled' check written for $10,000 which this person does not remember who the money (in cash) was given to - they were thinking of who it might be. The second and third calls, accusations about the 4 pages, and how they wanted to drive up to where I live and get these 4 pages from me, and that friends were visiting and wanted to read the 4 pages as well.
I was still in the 9th Ward. I drove back and gave them the papers. I was frustrated and tired (I spent close to 6 hours with them today), I said "I am giving you everything back, I need to have a break from helping you right now". The angry calls, the accusations, the constant demands on me were too much and I needed space.
Suddenly, an older black woman with gray dreadlocks wrapped in a purple head scarf, who was moments before sitting with her back to me on a chair, got up and came to the window of my car, took the papers I was handing out and and started asking who I was. At first she had a pleasant facial countenance, then she became belligerent, asking me who I was working for and where did I come from. Then the mask came off and she was raging, her head in my car. Screaming at me, she told me that this was my elder and I had no right to speak to her the way that I did. I told her I felt that I did have that right as I had been helping them for months now and I felt as if I was owed an apology for their behavior towards me before I could help out again. In response, this woman became enraged and told me she was going to pull me out of the car and beat the "hell" out of me. I then noticed that one of her 2 male companions was filming the interaction. I perceived that they felt at some level that they were filming "how a white person was abusing a black elderly person" - the interaction had that aura about it.
The elder, whom I have helped for months, did nothing to tell these people how much I had been helping them to get their life together. How today, I spent hours their sorting through papers. How I had found the Road Home papers and other important documents. How I drove them to appointments, the bank, Lowes, arranged for volunteers who worked on her home, and took numerous calls from them every day. Nothing was said to indicate that I was a meaningful and a helpful person in their life. Instead, the person whom I had been helping yelled at me that "I was the cause of their stress and to leave". Which seemed to enraged the friends even more.
I turned to the man with the camera who was filming me and said to the camera "the very important papers are in a brown envelope in the trunk of the car. The secondary in importance papers are in a large white envelope in the trunk also."
The elder I had been helping, yelled in response, "I am not stupid."
(Note: If not for this interaction this evening, the previous pattern over the last weeks would have included at least one call within an hour of my leaving asking where the papers were. Another call would be made asking me what they needed to do on Monday. I would explain about the list on the wall. These friends were, and are not, aware of this behavior, and one of them yelled at me about how disrespectful I was.)
I said to the camera "I love _____ very much and have been helping them." I feel an apology is needed before I will help any longer." Another angry retort which I do not remember was thrown at me and the righteous friends rallied around as I drove away.
I remember at some point the angry woman asking where I was from and telling me to get your "a--" back to Massachusetts where you belong."
What I have learned from this "helping" experience:
Some people can not be helped. You do the best that you can to assist them, and when the door closes, you leave.
That I am in over my head. Professionals skilled with working with the elderly, are needed in this situation.
I feel deeply betrayed by the person whom I was helping. This person did not stand up for me to their "friends". I feel betrayed and this hurts me deeply. I am aware that this behavior is possibly a sign of a deteriorating mental state and stress. Yet, there was some part of them who actively 'chose' to betray me. And in the end, they have hurt themselves the most. I assume it is part of a life long pattern.
I feel deeply hurt by the racism I experienced from the elders black friends who really believed that they were documenting a "white" person abusing an elder in their community. (That felt really awful).
I allowed myself to become too immersed in the drama of this person's life.
I now realize I was helping "too much".
I own it.
In retrospect, here is why I think this happened: I do not have much of a personal or social life as I do not drink or do drugs, (no French Quarter bar scenes). As a full-time volunteer, I do not earn a salary so that I do not have extra money to take myself to the movies or do something "fun". What extra money I do have, I have been using for the extra gas I have needed when helping others in really dire circumstances, also for making copies of various documents, especially for those who do not have the money or means to do so). I also know very few people down here socially and am frequently lonely (but not alone, as I enjoy my alone time).
These circumstances and others I am still not aware of as of this posting, led me to become too personally involved. There was too much of a void in my social life and I allowed myself to fill it with someone else's drama.
I am glad for this experience. I have learned a lot. I know I have more to learn about service work, working with the elderly, people with PTSD, people who are manipulative, and people who are distrustful. I have more to learn about boundaries. I see that I set some excellent ones, and I can see where I need to do more.
I can walk away from this situation knowing I gave more than 100%. I can walk away knowing that most of the documents are together, appointments have been made, lists of what to do with instructions are available to this elder and "friends" to get to the next level of getting back into their home.
I can go back to doing what I love the most, meeting people in the streets, helping them to "process' and documenting the suffering and their stories for this blog.
What I can't walk away from right now:
The woman raging, screaming at me, her face next to mine in my car window, threatening to beat me. The man who was filming me, walking around, getting different angles, as if he was getting some great footage of how white people abuse black people. _______, whom I deeply care for, betraying me and abandoning me.
As of this writing, it feels as if I am in a dual reality where I am internally re-experiencing the trauma over and over again and I am with caring friends who are nurturing me as I write this post.
The woman is still screaming in my face. Hours later - she is still screaming full of rage.
I am still there being filmed - I can see myself raising my voice, defending myself - shocked.
I am still traumatized.
My friends, other volunteers whose home I am at right now, whose computer I'm using to compose this blog posting - they are surrounding me with gentleness, love, and kindness; hugging me, feeding me, loving me. They know of what I am going through. They tell me of their own versions of my experience, of their own traumas and dramas related to helping.
With their help the screaming woman is moving further away... The betrayal is diminishing in its intensity. The laughter and talking from the living room full of volunteers, long-term and newly arrived as of today, gives me strength in solidarity.
There is I know now, a light and dark side of helping in New Orleans.
I just need some time and nurturing to heal the trauma of my first experience with the "dark side of helping..."
I spent the entire day on Monday calling numerous agencies that support the elderly, including the Governors office. I encountered many people who were very familiar with the various scenarios of the group of seniors I have been helping and were compassionate, I left numerous messages. As of Friday - 4 days later only 1 agency, Family Jewish Services, called back (with suggestions of other social services). They are sadly too far for the elders to get to. It is incredible that as a society we could leave our elders to suffer as they are. I want to help and I am feeling overwhelmed by the levels of suffering and need of the seniors I am serving. I feel that I need real time support from the agencies that are designed to help the elderly (if they weren't so overwhelmed themselves), then I could direct these seniors to the services they need and not be involved in situations I am not trained to handle. It's a catch 22 - I am not trained and these seniors are in crisis and I cannot, will not abandon them.