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.


A Tale of Two Goats


If you ask half a dozen people the origin of the term “scapegoat”, one of them will likely know it’s from the Bible. What they probably won’t know is there are two goats in the story. God tells Moses to sacrifice two goats to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. As with any sacrifice, the goats had to be perfect, that is, without flaw or blemish. The Talmud stipulated the goats be as alike as possible in size, color and value.

Each goat played an important role. Aaron, the priest, cast lots between the two. As a result one goat was chosen for God and the other goat became the scapegoat.

The goat chosen for God was sacrificed as a sin offering. His throat was slit and his blood was carried into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place inside the tabernacle, and applied to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the altar, and to the tabernacle itself. This goat’s blood cleansed the house of God.

But the other goat, the scapegoat, was presented live to God. Aaron put his hands on its head, confessed all the wrongdoings of the people of Israel over it, and then a man was selected to lead the goat out into the wilderness and release it. The scapegoat carried away the sins of the people.

Note, the scapegoat was the goat that got out alive.

I’m the other goat, the one whose blood was used to clean the house. In the standard list of family roles, the child who fullfills the role of “other goat” is known as The Hero  although I like  Trophy Daughter better. In public, the trophy child is the one parents hold up with pride as a shining example of their good parenting but in private, the trophy child sits on the family shelf, ignored and collecting dust.

Jerri, my sister, is the goat who escaped but not before being blamed for everything wrong in our family.

As kids, the two of us were so alike we were frequently mistaken as twins. Jerri was 18 months older but by the time I was two, I’d caught up in size. Add in our parents infinite wisdom in blessing us with rhyming names, and you get the picture: two goats, as similar as possible.

I don’t know how the decision was made between the two of us, who to blame and who to clean house with. Those who study family systems say the decision is subconscious and can be based on any number of things. They also say the decision is made by the whole family and is not the choice of any single individual. But when I rewind my internal DVR, it seems Mom was the one always pointing the finger at Jerri. They are a lot alike and that would have worked in Jerri’s favor if Mom had a healthy self-image. You see where I’m going with this.

As kids, Jerri could do nothing right. I, on the other hand, could do nothing wrong. She was constantly compared to me. According to Mom, I behaved better, slept better, ate better, made better grades, had more friends, more talent, more coordination, more maturity, and was more responsible. In other words, I was just more. Jerri was less. Jerri, quite naturally, hated me.

Years ago, I ran across an old sketch book from high school and showed it to Dad who’s always had a bit of an artistic bent. Dad flipped through the drawings and said, “Your sister was the one who took all the art classes, but you were the one with the talent.” Waves of pride and then shame washed over me. That’s what its like to be the Trophy Daughter. You’ll do anything for your parent’s approval, even if it means your own sister has to be thrown under the bus.

It didn’t surprise me to learn the scapegoat is usually the strongest one in the family. She has to be. Carrying the guilt for the entire family is a lot of hard work. The scapegoat is usually the one who first identifies the actual source of the negative family dynamics and pushes back. Because of her courage, she is first ostracized by the problem-causer and eventually, the entire family. Jerri pushed back with drugs, alcohol, sex, smoking, and suicide attempts. She was banished from our family at the age of 16. Eventually the scapegoating drove Jerri, quite literally, out of her mind.

And what was the Trophy Daughter doing all this time? Why, cleansing the family name, of course. She was bringing home A’s and making the honor roll and the dean’s list. She was yearbook editor, homecoming candidate, stat girl for the basketball and soccer teams, and treasurer of the youth group. She was in the Pep club, the Chess club, and the marching band. She was graduating 11th in her high school class of 330 and earning a Presidential Scholarship to the college of her choice. And she was pretending that she was the goat who got to live.

About five years ago, Jerri and I reconnected and instead of the addict I’d always been told she was, I found a woman struggling with mental illness and poverty and with little hope of maintaining stability long enough to get her life back.

Now in our late forties, my sister and I are both trying to leave our old roles behind.

What strikes me now, more than anything, is how our parent’s words defined us. Words are powerful. What we say to each other matters:

A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! –The Message, James 3:3-5

Jerri was told she would never succeed at anything. When she decided to take some classes at the community college nearby she was told, “Why are you going back to school? You’ll never finish. You never finish anything you start.” She has been unemployed the majority of her adult life and is barely scraping by on disability. I was told I could be anything I set my mind to. I went on to college, graduate school, and a career at a major pharmaceutical company. We started out the same, two goats equal in size, color, and value. We were not different; we were only told that we were.