I am just as energized and optimistic about the coming year as many of you. I intended to start the year with an uplifting message in my usual inspirational manner. I cannot do that, because above all I must be real and true. The truth is that January the 1st was a mixed bag of feelings and reflections following my encounter with a man I’ll call John.
Johnny is a thirty something year old man who, as a child, was a client on my caseload. I rarely think of the children with whom I worked as a foster care and adoption case manager in the eighties. Johnny, however, is the one who has crossed my mind most frequently throughout the years. From the time he was 11 to 15 years of age, I was the worker who saw him through foster placements, a failed adoption, a psychiatric hospitalization and a group home placement. We logged hundreds of miles together in my car as I drove him to therapy appointments, sibling visits, and once to meet his estranged birth father in prison.
A few weeks ago he found me on Facebook and sent me a message. After a few brief and cryptic contacts, I suggested we meet. It just so happened to fall on the first day of the year. I never hesitated to see him, probably wanting it as much as he did, both of us curious. I always suspected the worse for Johnny as his fate seemed somehow pre-destined and beyond the control of anyone, most of all him. I expected him to be alcohol/drug dependent with a criminal record and a series of failed or dysfunctional relationships.
I didn’t expect the worse because he was a bad kid. He wasn’t a troublemaker or mean spirited person. He was quiet and somewhat closed off, but could be kind and caring. (Damn it! Here come the tears again.) As his worker, I acted with the belief that his aloof demeanor was a form of protection from all the hurt he had experienced. He was never hard or angry. Johnny was so unlike his cute, but severely disturbed younger brother who suffered from an attachment disorder. Johnny didn’t get kicked out homes, schools and programs requiring multiple hospitalizations like his brother.
Johnny came with his share of problems, but he could feel for, connect to and reason with people. I liked Johnny and cared about what happened to him. It may sound harsh, but this is not always a given in my field. The child welfare system, unfortunately, moved too slow to save him and there was some bad luck along the way. Before long Johnny was teenager. A large male teen with troubles is a risky and unappealing choice for most families. Everyone who cared for and provided for Johnny, though well meaning, had limitations, including myself. And while there is no intended blame, the reality is there was no one willing to commit to Johnny unconditionally and for the long haul, something he no doubt felt. He was going to age out of the system and choose to return to his birth family. I didn’t witness this because I left the job for graduate school, but I knew it nonetheless.
I walk into the diner, but don’t see him in the lobby. I answer ‘yes’ when the hostess asks if I am meeting someone. She says, “He told me to look for someone really pretty. He’s sitting in a booth in the back. I’ll take you to him.” I feel suddenly very nervous and emotional as I walk through the dining room. After all, it has been twenty years since we last saw each other. Was I right or wrong about the direction his life had taken? Did it matter? I wish I could say the answer was a surprise and that he’s doing well. It turned out to be worse than I imagined as I was soon to find out.
A disheveled and poorly dressed man turns when I approach. His eyes grow big and his smile reveals neglected teeth. There is an airy, vacant quality to his look. I can tell he is high, but the face is unmistakably Johnny. I lean down without reservation to hug him and am overcome instantly by the stale smell of cigarettes, then the aroma of alcohol. My heart sinks, but I am no less interested in spending this time with him.
His words are somewhat slurred and his mental status clearly altered (geez, I write like a clinician), but we are able to carry on a decent conversation. He thanks me for coming and says I am more beautiful than my pictures, so I know he has read about me on the internet. I order food for us and encourage him to drink his water, then ask how heavily he has been drinking. He informs me he only drank today because he is nervous to see me, but we both know which part of that statement is a lie. We soon fall comfortably into the roles we had previously played and I start to learn the latest in his life.
The short story is that he drinks and smokes pot every day, stays with many family members in a small apartment from which he is soon to be kicked out, has spent a total of 12 of his adult years in prison (that’s right, not jail), cannot get a job and is on the verge of homelessness. He reports that he refuses to speak with his brother whom he terms a pedophile responsible for sexually abusing a handful of children (again, no surprise). Johnny’s relationship with the steadiest foster parents was destroyed by his lifestyle. His descriptions of the remaining family involve violence, drug addiction, crime and prostitution.
Johnny doesn’t ask me for anything and I don’t offer to help solve his problems. We both know better, as it’s not that simple. He tells me he remembers me because “you were really hot.” The same wry humor and sarcasm I remember still crops up as we speak. I say, “Really? That’s what you remember about me? All of my effort and schooling….” I should be creeped out by his comments, but I’m not. It’s just Johnny, after all. He laughs, “It’s true. But I also remember that you were always nice to me no matter what. You never lied to me and that’s a big deal. That’s really rare, you know. Everybody is a liar. No matter what I’ve done, I don’t lie.”
After lunch I somewhat tentatively let him in my car when he asks for a ride. The strangeness of it all is not lost on me as we coincidentally ride down streets we had traveled together before, me as the driver and him in the passenger seat. Neither of us speak when we pass the old, now abandoned building that had housed the children’s services office where we both spent so much time. I let him out on a corner and we hug one last time. He holds onto me for a long minute and seems slow to get out of the car. Whether it is his intoxicated state or a hesitancy to leave, I’ll never know. I notice that I feel anxious for him to go, so I can make the left turn that will take me back into my life, my plans for the day. I don’t want to see any more.
I take one last look as he stumbles away, a broken man with huge barriers before him. When others look at him they see a strung out, pathetic, alcoholic felon, no different than the men I see frequently at the hospital. They arrive at the emergency room after being found down on the street, drunk, homeless, with chronic medical issues and no one left to care about them. We give them resource sheets with addresses for shelters and alcohol programs we assume they will never use. We don’t see the child, the abusive history or the lost chances. When I last look at Johnny, I suddenly see only the 11 year old boy I had known. I swallow hard and turn away, saying a prayer for God to watch over him, to save him when I, and everyone else, had not.
I go straight to the gym for my workout, then on to my parents’ home where I planned to visit and spend the night. Catching up with them, I only briefly mention my lunch, then head to the shower. I stand under the hot water in their wonderful home, thinking about the delicious dinner that awaits me, the strong support of their unconditional love, and my endless blessings. I didn’t do anything to deserve any of it. I was just born, that’s all. I was born into the best situation one could ever want.
Johnny was born into his situation, too. And like me, he did nothing to earn what he was dealt. I stand in the shower and sob. I cry for him, the unfairness of it all and others in this unjust world who suffer so much. I try to stop and get a hold of myself, but the tears keep flowing from some place deep inside of me as if they have a mind of their own and will never end.
There is nothing to write in this space right now. I don’t know if there will be, or not. I am not sure if I will see him again, nor do I know that he would want it. Johnny is going to have to be ready and determined in order to save himself now, even if help is available. I do know that I will look into the faces of all the adults with whom I now work and wonder a little more about the child inside.