A Double Life
Every day, I straddle two very different worlds.
Last week, I spent time listening to a man in his mid-thirties who is a regular in the waiting area at my office. He comes not for services but because he feels safe there.
The man is a paranoid schizophrenic who has been disowned by his family, experienced bouts of homelessness, been the victim of street-wise individuals and sporadically stayed in psychiatric hospitals. On that particular morning, he had housing but wanted to complain about police harassment. He used “colorful” phrases as he expressed confusion as to why anyone thinks he could be violent or dangerous.
I gave him my sympathy while gently telling him that his rough language might put some people off. What I didn’t say was that I was pleased he was even talking to me. That meant he was taking his medication.
When he’s off his medications, he mumbles to himself and doesn’t make eye contact.
I take comfort in the fact that all of my co-workers keep tabs on him and worry when he appears to be off his medication.
Their concern doesn’t come from any work-related requirement. They care because they understand the tenuous line every person walks.
Some of us are fortunate enough to start life with a wide open road built by a strong support system. Taking a step forward to better circumstances is an expectation that is cheered, encouraged and made possible by multiple people.
Others are forced to walk a tightrope of poverty, violence and disinterest. Taking one step forward into better circumstances is a test of determination and the ability to navigate an obstacle course of mental and physical health problems, abuse and poor role models.
Which line we walk is often a stroke of luck, sometimes a matter of choices but always requires a safety net provided by our fellow human beings. The people I work with know their job is to increase the odds for everyone who walks through our doors.
But that’s my work life.
My personal life can be completely different.
Only a few hours after my conversation with the schizophrenic, I was selling hot dogs, hamburgers and nachos at the high school concession stand where the talk among the parents was all about the latest drama: “slushee gate.”
According to those in the know (not me), the band has total rights to all fall sports concession sales. The football parents (not the students) disagreed, sought and apparently received permission from one high level administrator to sell frozen lemonade slushees during games.
Drama, including public cussing by the wife of a football coach, ensued.
I care about supporting my son and the band, but I can’t understand getting so emotionally engaged in something that doesn’t actually affect anyone’s well-being.
There are too many parents who are struggling just to meet their family’s basic needs and are ill-equipped to deal with the complications of daily life. A battle over concessions at high school athletic competitions isn’t part of their world just as their issues aren’t on the radar of parents who can afford for their children to be involved in extracurricular activities.
Because of my career choice, I live in both worlds.
Which is why I had a recent conversation with a woman who was young enough to be my own daughter yet had three children. She was homeless and had made a poor decision that resulted in her eviction, and therefore her children’s eviction, from a local shelter. She talked to me about her “baby daddy” (her exact words) and their violent relationship.
There was nothing I could do but provide her with a few kind words and a bit of advice. She had made one critical error that couldn’t be fixed and didn’t have a support system of family or friends that could help. Because of that, she had no place to sleep other than in a tent.
Her situation was weighing on my mind when a well-to-do donor breezed through my office door.
I listened as she described the stress of downsizing her home to what she called “a retirement cottage.” Since I don’t live in her world – I just visit it – I thought the only small thing about her new big house is that it has less square footage than the estate where she used to live. I empathized with her concerns because she was feeling stressed.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but note that I was once again straddling not two but three worlds. The one where I live, the one where my clients live and the one where my donors live.
I appreciate our donors. They are caring people who know they are fortunate and wanted to help those who are not. They are the lifeblood of my organization. But they still live in a world that is very different from the one inhabited by the people my organization serves.
And I have to negotiate all those worlds. But that type of double life isn’t something about which I should be ashamed. Instead, I should consider it a gift that allows me to serve as a bridge that increases understanding and hope.
At least it increases my hope that one day, I’ll work myself out of a job and no one will have to lead a double life. That’s because we will all live in the same world.