Helping the Helpers

overworked-doctor

“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”

This morning, I walked across a parking lot toward my vehicle in a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt that reads “That’s what.” –She, my backpack over my shoulder, car keys in my hand. An older woman, likely in her mid-70s, pulling an oxygen tank behind her walked toward me. She had a brunette perm, a flowered blouse, and baggy black slacks on. Her glasses slid down to the end of her nose in classic grandma fashion.

“Um, yes?”

She walked quickly across the parking lot. “What is it that you do? What are you any good at?”

“I’m sorry?” Concerned, I unlocked my car and set my backpack inside.

“I said, ‘what are you any good at?'”

“Oh, I heard you, I just didn’t really understand the question.”

She got closer to my car now, just a few feet away. “I need help!”

I looked at her with concern. “What kind of help?”

“There–there is a young girl next door,” she explained, out of breath. “She’s crying. I’ve never met her, but she’s crying, and I asked her if she is okay, and I think she said she wasn’t okay but I wasn’t sure and she’s still crying, and are you any good at that?”

I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes, suspicious. “Am I any good at what? I’m just out running an errand.”

“Son, I’m asking you what you are good at!” She stepped in closer. “She’s crying and I don’t know what to do!”

She suddenly looked angry. What in heaven’s name is going on, I wondered. “Well, if you are worried about her, maybe you should call the police.”

“She’s in a house I’ve never been in and I don’t have a phone! Please just come with me!”

“Ma’am, I’m very sorry, but I need to get going.”

She looked angry, then disappointed, then sad as I started my car, backed out, and began to pull away. A hundred scenarios flashed through my head. Was she trying to get me into the house so I could be mugged? Was she suffering from dementia and having an episode? Was there really a mystery girl next door crying in a house?

I drove past the woman and pulled out onto the small road next to the parking lot. One house down, I slowed the car. There was a girl sitting on the front porch in her early twenties, looking unkempt, in a white tank top and Capris. She had headphones in her ears and mussed hair. She looked up at me as I drove by slowly, her eyes streaked with tears, and we briefly made eye contact. She flipped me off as I drove by.

What just happened?

I pictured myself presenting to my college class later this week, as an ethical scenario. I teach social workers, all working on a masters in the field, and I enjoy presenting unorthodox scenarios and picking their brains. Was it ethically sound for me as a professional who upholds a license and a duty to help others to drive away from this old woman and crying adult? I could open the topic for discussion, but my students would already know my answer. In my office, it is my job to help those who are in front of me, but I was out on the street as a civilian. I need boundaries, and I’m not expected to put myself in potentially dangerous situations. Calling the authorities would be sufficient in the worst scenarios, and in this case I don’t have enough information to even do that.

When I first entered the field of social work, I was surprised by how often strangers and family members would solicit me for advice.

“I think my husband is cheating on me, what should I do?”

“My daughter’s friend said that her daddy touches her sometimes and I don’t know what that means, but he gives me the creeps. Should I call Child Protection? What do I do?”

“I’ve been having flashbacks to my brother’s suicide, what does that mean?”

Even worse are the date therapy sessions. Meeting a guy for the first time and having those awkward conversations about where you grew up, who is in your family, and what you do for a living.

“I’m a clinical social worker.”

“Oh, really? I have a counselor. I’ve had one for years, in fact. After my dad left when I was a kid and my mom married a guy who later went to jail, I attempted suicide and sometimes I still think about it.”

I have a tremendous amount of compassion and I like helping others, but not at the expense of myself, and not on a date. Extending too much of myself leads to a little thing called compassion fatigue, a fancy way of saying burnout. I care too much for too many and too little for myself, and suddenly instead of helping a few people a lot I only get to help a lot of people a little. And I go home exhausted.

I sometimes have friends who worry about being able to confide in me about their struggles. But that’s different. In a reciprocal friend relationship, I can rely on others just as they rely on me. If we hang out three times a month and you are having a bad day, sure, call me up and let’s chat. But if I haven’t seen you in five years and you call for advice on your estranged mother, well, I’ve got a little less to offer.

It must be worse for nurses and doctors.

“Is it normal for this to be this purple/stiff/dry/swollen? Could you take a look?”

So, to the old lady and the crying girl who randomly crossed my path this morning, I hope the help you need. You just won’t get it from me.

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