Desperately Seeking Perspective

Tuesday morning, my iPhone woke me at 5 am. Not the alarm clock app, but an actual caller, Catherina, Jerri’s case worker. She was calling from North Carolina and didn’t realize, of course, that I was in San Francisco on business. “I’m about to go into a meeting with Housing for New Hope,” she said. “Looks like they want to evict Jerri.”

“Based on what, Catherina?”

“Well, I won’t have all the details until after the meeting but she’s leaving the external door to the building propped open with the mat, not cleaning her apartment, and apparently Brian found her sleeping on the floor of her apartment one day, practically unconscious, and he had a terrible time getting her up and into bed.”

I’ve already had a conversation with Brian about the door mat and he knows all the residents are doing it. And since when can you get evicted from sleeping on your apartment floor? And if Jerri was sleeping so soundly that Brian couldn’t get her up, how did he get in the apartment? Master key? It’s like one big perpetual game of Bullshit.

Here’s what no one is saying. Housing for New Hope suspects recreational drugs. That’s against their covenants and reason for eviction. The mat in the door is to allow a dealer to enter. The unkempt apartment and heavy sleeping is because she’s wasted.

And they could be right. It’s true Jerri looks terrible and continues to lose weight. When using, addicts often don’t eat or take care of themselves. But the same can be said for people experiencing a psychotic break or even a debilitating illness like cancer. And that’s Jerri’s claim. Something is terribly wrong with her and she feels really sick all the time.

At 11 am, same day, Jerri called fuming mad as if I was in on some conspiracy. Why would I possibly want her to be homeless? What could possibly be in that for me? You know, some days I don’t need anyone to drive me crazy because, thank you very much, I can walk there from here.

Jerri says she can’t keep her apartment clean because she feels bad. She doesn’t know what’s wrong but thinks its probably her liver. But she won’t go to the hospital because she has a doctor’s appointment next week. Catherina thinks she won’t go to the hospital because they’ll find drugs in her system. Honestly, I don’t know what to think. I spent two hours on the phone trying to get Jerri to see other people’s perspective and how based on appearances, it’s easy to jump to the “drug use” conclusion. If she’s really that sick (and she’s been saying this for about a month now), why not try to move the doctor’s appointment up? Or go to the ER? Jerri refuses to do either.

Today, Jerri called around 3 pm. She’d just gotten up and has no food in the house. We’d planned to do a grocery run but she just didn’t feel like it. Could I drive over a chicken sandwich and a large Sprite? She didn’t feel like walking to the shelter to eat. I didn’t particularly want to get out either. I’ve still got jet lag and the weather is nasty. And this is the third time this month, she’s asked me to deliver food. (Once I said yes and the other time, no, for those of you keeping score.)

Stan asked why I was even considering it. That’s the crux of the matter. Why am I? Trophy daughters are known enablers; I don’t want to be one. I want Jerri to make better choices like always having some food in the house and I realize when she doesn’t experience consequences of bad choices, she has no incentive to make better ones. But then I think about my close friends. If one of them called with the same request I’d do it in a heartbeat. Why? Because I love them. Because they wouldn’t ask unless they really needed help. Maybe I should just have “sucker” tattooed on my forehead. All I know is, if I was really, really sick, I’d want someone to bring me a meal. Curse you, Empathy!

So I’d like some external perspective here. In a situation like this, how do you decide when to give and when to set boundaries?

As a sidebar, I saw the movie Blue Like Jazz this week and at one point the main character, Don, says (and I paraphrase), “In the past, I’d always used the what-would-Jesus-do method to figure things out. Just what would Jesus do if his mother had an affair with his Youth Pastor? I couldn’t even imagine . . .” If you happen to know WWJD in my situation, I’m all ears. Because frankly, I can’t even imagine.


16 Comments on “Desperately Seeking Perspective”

  1. Summer Moon says:

    I can relate to this so much. I have the same problem with setting boundaries too, especially with people whom I love so dearly. It’s hard for me to say no. I will get upset and hurt when I call them to ask a question or something, and don’t hear back from them. Then, when they suddenly decide to call, it’s usually to ask me for a favor, I’ll still do it ’cause I know it’s something they truly need, but it makes me dislike my “weakness” in not being able to say no. Some people, I’ve had a bit easier time saying no to now, but they’re people who have not only used me, but hurt me so severely that I just deal with them when I have to (family), but no longer go out of my way for them. But, that’s more based around the hurt feelings. If they were to apologize and I felt they truly meant it, I know I’d be back right where I was before with doing favors when they need.

    I’m told all the time that I have thin skin and I need to become tough as nails. I guess the tough as nails part is what would help me to set more boundaries, but unfortunately I just don’t think it’s in my personality to become that type of person. I have the same problem as you when it comes to empathy. It’s hard not to empathize with people. I know some people can easily move forward and not think twice. But, I will have regrets (huge ones) if I don’t do for others, when they need it. Even if they are maybe taking advantage of my never saying no, I’ll feel so bad. I mainly have this problem with family members, and not so much with my friends, although I’ve had my moments with them too. It’s definitely something that I need to work harder on.

    You asked what would Jesus do, and it’s a hard one for sure. I know Jesus was compassionate beyond anything I think any of us can truly understand, but we can do our best to follow His love, guidance and most of all beautiful example in the life that He lead. I know my faith has a lot to do with my not being able to say no as well. Just as you stated in your post, I too always remember that golden rule of do unto others as you would want done unto you. And, I also know that Jesus had a great deal of compassion for His fellow man, therefore I often feel like I’m doing the complete opposite by not being there for someone when they need it. However, I’m also reminded of the fact that Jesus did indeed get angry when people were selfish and greedy, and when it comes to using people and their time and empathy, then I think that might fall into the same category.

    Oh man is it a difficult one to figure out. Like you, I hope I can also someday figure out how to deal with it all. Take care trophydaughter, and thanks for this post. It’s a relatable one for sure.


  2. cathyalford says:

    Hi Terri,

    I think I was the first to post a comment on this thread, however it isn’t here. I can’t remember what I said now, but just wanted you to know I wasn’t ignoring your question. 🙂 Love you!

    • For whatever reason, the “Cancel reply” button is so much larger than the “Post Comment” button. A couple of times, I’ve canceled when I meant to post. Wonder if that’s what happened? I didn’t see a comment from you anywhere (even checked SPAM just in case). I will continue to crave objective insights so please, when that synapse fires again 🙂 share the wisdom!

  3. gardengirrrl says:

    Now that several other people have commented, I will throw my answer in the ring too, for what it’s worth. You ask what, to me, are 2 separate questions: 1) How to draw boundaries and 2)WWJD. I’ll start with the second question, as I’m afraid that is the easier one (again, from my perspective). I would pray for strength and wisdom but none of us as humans will have his arsenal of strength, compassion, etc. I feel like that is a measuring stick which will be quite difficult emotionally and psychologically to measure up to and you may harm yourself along the way of trying.

    I think the goal of boundaries should be self preservation, not in the selfish way, but in the “I need to not burn out or hurt myself too badly so I can pick myself up and do this again tomorrow” way. So, to the question of boundaries, it IS situational, based on your own reactions and the perceived direness of the situation. When I have needed to, I picture a circle around myself that I control, and no one can enter it. You are in control of the boundaries. This thought process alone makes me feel less vulnerable and more willing to help because I know at the end of the day I will protect myself if I need to (I know, it sounds a bit naive but it’s what’s worked).

    The whole goal is to ensure that you don’t end up so fed up that you close a door or walk away, the way other people have done with Jerri. You said that sometime you say no simply based on your energy level, and that is how you know that you will be there to support her another day.

    This also ties into the above comment about not feeling guilty. If you make decisions based on sustaining your energy level so you can persevere, there should absolutely be no guilt because you are doing the right thing for the long-term goal. Best wishes for clarity on this subject !

    • GardenGirl, this is really helpful. You make such a good point about walking away. I’ve found that to be a pattern in my life. I put up with stuff, I take it over and over, and then one day, something seemingly small happens, and I’m done. I’ve walked away from jobs, friendships, and my mother all following that same pattern. When I reflect back, I see that I didn’t say the things that needed to be said, I didn’t take care of myself, I didn’t say “no” when requests were too much or unreasonable. Mostly, i didn’t say “no” at all because that’s the way I was raised. I didn’t recognize the signs of emotional exhaustion. And when I did walk away, it was a sheer matter of self-preservation. I love what you said here about energy level and the guilt-freeness of making decisions based on that.

  4. Jesus would probably handle that whole affair with his youth pastor much better than any of us could contemplate. In my youth, I probably would have shot first and asked questions later, but as I approach 50, I try to take more of a laissez faire attitude toward others’…affairs 😛

    Having been in a similar position, i.e. bring the food at the third request in as many weeks, I have to say I still engage in killer internal arguments as to whether I should do it, or ignore it. Sometimes I find myself complying in full, in part, or not at all, from everything ranging to buying groceries to paying utility bills. I find myself weighing the urgency of the request versus the urgency of my own life, i.e. when’s the last time food was in the house; if there were meals that day, am I going that way anyway; or, I’m just tired, heck I don’t know what I’m serving my own family for dinner, no one is starving, and I need a mental break. I understand boundaries are critical to your own sanity and stress levels, but setting them for someone you do love but who can also drive you nuts is a continuous challenge.

    • Hi Lynne — so it’s not just me and there’s no easy answers . . . RATS! You captured perfectly the process I go through everytime one of these requests comes up. Some nights, like tonight, I don’t mind running by Jerri’s apartment–I was in the general viscinity anyway. Other nights, it feels like a royal imposition. Perhaps I need to go with my gut more often.

  5. Susan says:

    Good blog post, Terri. I can’t really help right now with any perspective as I have somehow misplaced all I had. You know . . . lots of thoughts, not that are helpful. Other than, perhaps, between the two of us do you think we could buy an island and fly away and live there?

  6. I just came across this quote again from Helen Keller. Maybe it could be of help…..I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.
    Helen Keller

    When we can do…we do….when we can’t do…we won’t and we won’t feel guilty about it!

  7. I think you need to set some boundaries and I think you know it too. I normally think WWMD or where in this case the M stands for my sister. It’s tough because given the same circumstances or if the situation was reversed I think she would do as much as I do for her. There comes a point though when you know you need to draw a boundary for your own sanity and to help her as well. The difficult part is that normally boundaries are drawn it is with some rationality involved. Here your dealing in chaos in mania in not wellness in general which may not lead to your sister making any real changes. However, the boundary is for you…your well being…your mental health. That is really why the boundary is needed. However I like to think of it as an elastic boundary. For my sister sometimes I am her only lifeline. It is in those cases that I stretch the boundary enough to help her again and again. Oh well, not sure if this helps or not! I just know how you feel!

    • Yes, yes, and YES! You really do understand! I’d love to have my boundaries all mapped out on a sheet of paper but its just not that black and white. I like the idea of an elastic boundary allowing me to stretch it if necessary. Do you have an actual list of boundaries written down? I could use some help thinking mine through.

      • I don’t have an exact plan for boundaries. It tends to depend on the circumstances. So for example if my sister is a manic spiral and her words are hurtful to me or to my daughter/husband….my boundaries are pretty rigid and I won’t bend unless I feel she’s really in danger AND I can help… there have been times she’s been in danger and there would be nothing i could do but pray. Now that she’s been on her meds and pretty much “Stable” for the past few years my boundaries are less rigid. i do try to if I spend one weekend day out ‘i.e. helping my sister and/or other family than I spend one weekend day “in” and they all know this. Hope that helps some!

  8. Anonymous says:

    My wife fusses at me when I give money to those who appear homeless and ask for it. She says they will just by booze or drugs, not food. I tell her that if God leads me to give to them, he will judge me based on my obedience, not on what the other person does with my gift. It’s tough to not be an enabler but I would rather be that than fail to do all I could to help someone.

    • Good thoughts, Anonymous. Ultimately, I think God just wants me to love her, whatever that looks like at any given moment. I wish there was a set of rules to follow, you know, if this then do that. But there isn’t. I have to take every separate request and examine it to determine how to proceed at that point in time. Sometimes I have to say no because I simply don’t have the time or the energy to say yes. Sometimes if feels like what I’m doing today is inconsistent with what I did yesterday. And that seems wrong, but I’m not trying to train a dog here. I also don’t think God wants me to leave my brain at the door so maybe I overthink it. Life is so much harder than I thought it would be.

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