“This fragile life really worries me. This fragile life, I know one day could be me and you. Do you like to feel cold?”- This Fragile Life by Newtown Neurotics
I spent a semester and a month pursuing an MSW and I was falling down a hole the entire time. When people talk about depression as an illness I think it is easy to assume that all the suffering that accompanies it goes on in the realm of thought. Pessimism, existential dread, hopelessness that looks like apathy, these are the things that typify the condition. But it is so much more. There is a physical component that is hard to comprehend if you’ve not experienced it. Limbs feel funny, stomachs devolve into chaos, and you become a conduit for some sinister agency. It’s no wonder we either sleep all day or not at all.
I have a low threshold for meaninglessness. I don’t like to talk about maintaining life. I want to talk about transforming it. The endless built in assumptions about ‘helping’ that get bandied about by presumably well-minded bureaucrats rarely looks like helping to me. Perhaps I’m too much of a purist. It’s entirely possible that my ideals have crippled me. In most institutions I’ve dragged myself into, I would love to feel nothing and instead I feel enraged.
During the relatively short period in which I pursued this degree I sat in a chair and felt pissed off. The lack of vision and political analysis beyond a desire to lodge centrist Democrats in positions of power was both boring and obnoxious. The lack of insight into all the ways in which social workers serve as gatekeepers and modifiers of human fragility made me feel sick. Sick with myself for participating, sick with them for white-washing.
Coming out the other side of the experience I wish that I had advocated for a position that sounds like a joke but isn’t: Provide firearms to the unhoused if they want them. America is already swimming in guns. What’s a few more cheap shotguns and revolvers going to do?
These kinds of blunt programmatic statements are, by their nature, not well thought out. I was once fully convinced that the legalization of drugs was a thoroughgoing path to racial justice and a return to the pursuit of pleasure over power. As we ever so slowly emerge from the prohibition paradigm the use of drugs as a political piston continues. The drugs that middle-class white people do are fine. Psychedelics are okay- the tech bro overseers of silicon valley suffering proudly announce the micro-dosing psychedelic regimens that they use to become masters of the protestant work ethic. The rest of us applaud them.
But the miserable masses using amphetamines to get them through the gauntlet of their days is worth a condescending tut-tut, as is the use of opiates. But only when poor people use them.
As a user of psychedelics, I think Dr. Carl L. Hart, author of Drug Use for Grown-Ups, elaborates a critique of this: Those of us who advocate for the legalization of psychedelics still recoil at the use of ‘hard’ drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, PCP and onward. We claim that our drugs are sacred and should be legal (stolen from indigenous societies though they may be) while others, used by the poor, are profane.
That’s a long way around to the earlier point: Arming the unhoused may be wrong-headed, but these things only get analyzed in the wash. The potential is that 1) violence against this population would diminish, 2) the police would be limited in their ability to disrupt the communities that are ‘temporary’ only inasmuch as they get cleared out on a regular basis and 3) policy decisions that redistribute wealth would become a priority.
Or maybe it would just result in more interpersonal violence. I don’t know… everything’s fucked and optimism is a bad ontological leaning. I’m sure Joe Biden will address all of our social problems.
Part of social work education is field placement. Mine was in a public library system. The vast majority of my time was spent reading.
On the occasions when someone needed assistance I tried my best. But my best wasn’t very good. Most of the time I listen to tales of degradation and misery and would follow this up with utterly useless attempts to secure some kind of material assistance for the desperate.
The degree to which social services are routinely denied to the people who need them is profound. If you want a bed for the night, you already have to be freezing to death. If you want your obvious disability to be recognized, prepare for months of waiting while you walk your day away- you’re not allowed to hang out at the homeless shelter, and you’re expected to go through the motions of applying to jobs that you will never be hired to perform. The smell of desperate living is upon you and Target has plenty of people who are slightly less fucked that they can hire.
The public library is perhaps the most important institution in the life of an unhoused person. You can hang out there all day and as long as you’re able to stay quiet you can use the computers, read, and escape from the cold of winter. There are charging stations for your phone, clean bathrooms, and an opportunity to navigate relationships with others who are in the same position.
I tried to learn everyone’s name. I tried to shake everyone’s hand. This seemed important. Disrespect is a generalizable phenomenon for many of these men and women and these are the two acts that rise to the point of acknowledging someone’s basic humanity. I don’t know how these people survived the boring and directionless days of the pandemic- they lost the library, and surely much more.
Upon entering the library in the morning I would ask the staff if anyone seemed like they might need help. They were there for many more hours of the day than I was and were in a much better position to identify needs. If they had no direction to provide I would walk through the library and stereotype people.
On one of these sweeps I saw a very young man staring off into space, huddling into himself. I asked him if he needed help and he said ‘yes’. We walked into a conference room and sat down. He began crying. There is nothing to do with this kind of sadness but listen. I was not allowed to touch another person in this role. If I could, I would have held his hand.
He told me of the terminal crisis that was his life. His father had died of a heroin overdose some months ago, and he found the body. He was certain that it was not an accidental overdose. Their relationship had been frayed prior to his death and he blamed himself for this. His guilt was frantic, overwhelming him, and he had no way to make it right. I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but I am a human and have enough experience with misery to know that no one could touch this remorse.
Roger was homeless. He’d lived his whole life in Mastic-Shirley, a place that Long Islanders call “Selden by the Sea”, which is an ironic way of referring to this town as white middle-class and in decline, sliding into non-existence. The shelter system had removed him from this place where he knew people and the landscape to a point far West, with no resources and no hope.
He had been banished from his family home after getting drunk, stealing a friend’s car, and driving it into the Atlantic. He was arrested and then sued, at which point his mother had kicked him out of her house. He desperately wanted to go home but his mother wouldn’t speak to him. I listened to him make calls to his brother and then to a family friend. He begged them to intervene but both told him there was no going home- he had to ‘man up’, a disgusting term people use to inform the injured, desperate and helpless that they need to function economically before they’re worthy of love, help, or hope.
I asked if he had any psychiatric diagnoses. His affect was flat when he wasn’t crying. His paralysis seemed as though it went all the way down, rooted in his body. He told me that, at some point, by some doctor, he had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This is a scary diagnosis that doesn’t say much. It seems like a catch-all that gets applied to people who don’t fit into the usual paradigms.
He sobbed through the morning. I gave him my sad lunch and he inhaled it, then told me that his probation officer was coming to the library to meet him. He asked if I would sit in and I answered in the affirmative, though I dreaded it. I hate cops.
They arrived and I sat with them. I was somewhat shocked by the fact that they were kind and understanding. They seemed to be pretty hip to the fact that he was truly fucked. He was too young and too sick to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles of a life on the street. He needed to access medical care that he was incapable of travelling to. He needed to make his way to a distant county social services office to maintain his housing. He needed to prove that he was looking for work, a task that he was clearly incapable of.
They seemed sad, resigned to and regretful of the fact that he was inches away from ending up in jail, another place that would annihilate his humanity. We all discussed the need to make an effort towards getting him placed in some kind of supportive housing, a benefit that would take an endless span of months to access.
I had an opportunity to speak to them privately. I said that I didn’t expect them to be kind. They said that they live with this hopelessness. They knew that Roger would be denied assistance that he was clearly entitled to, and that they would be unable to transcend their roles as bureaucratic robots. They were also tragic, more people broken by rules and constrained by life.
For the rest of the day I helped him barely clear hurdles and we ultimately got nowhere. This typified our relationship. Everyone got to know him- the librarians, the security staff, the administrators. We all feared for him.
Over and over he would disappear for several days at a time. Inevitably this was a 72 hour hold in a psych ward. He would show up, confess a sincere desire to die, and be admitted. He would be given medicine and referrals, things he wasn’t able to follow up on. I considered it my mission to get him disability benefits, but the tasks that this required were beyond him. He kept missing appointments. And he kept going missing.
Roger’s well-being became a task that everyone who worked at the library undertook. I would be provided with status reports from the security staff. This was a melting point for me. I generally fear and dislike people in any position of authority, which is an unfair assumption when it comes to the security guards in a library. Their mission is less to enforce rules than to explain to those breaking them that they sincerely did not want to ask them to leave and needed them to adhere to some mandate of courtesy.
It was through the problem of Roger that I came to not only understand, but in some senses to love, these big, strong men. They wanted to protect him. I did too.
In an instance that still makes me cry, I learned that the director of security had been picking Roger up on the weekends and bringing him to his house. Roger and this man’s children would do yard work, and not in a laborious way. He had pictures of his two boys and Roger smiling, diving into piles of leaves. Then there were photos of his family, plus Roger, eating at one of Long Island’s ubiquitous and interchangeable diners. Smiles all around. Then they went to the movies, and again, his boys and Roger posed outside, smiling. No more flat stare. No more tears.
The next week Roger went missing again. At this point it was a sincere worry we shared. Where did this tragically innocent child go? Was he alive? In jail? In the hospital? We never found out. His phone was off. The men he’d slept alongside had heard nothing. The same for his probation officers. His fate is a mystery.
These absences hurt. He was, and hopefully is, a child that made us more human both to ourselves and to others. These points at which we realize the fragility of life usually pass us by. Sometimes they hit us head on.