Thursday, October 2, 2008

Burn Out

In the realm of Catholic Worker-type service, the subject of "burn out" is nothing foreign to volunteers and community members. It is dangerously simple to put one's nose to the grind and not look up, with the results ranging from loneliness and depression to obsessing over work to rigidity in self and routine. During my 14 months in Los Angeles, I have caught myself with my focus completely on work and consequently heading straight for an early burn out.

Today, however, I shared time with a Hippie Kitchen patron who has crossed the threshold of burnout and now confronts a deeper conflict with the worth of his own life. He has always seemed to be a happy, energetic man, and our exchanges have been quite positive and full of laughter. But I caught him zoning out at one of the picnic tables today, and jokingly asked, "You okay?" I was not expecting him to respond with such melancholy. His exact words do not resonate, but his expression was careless and empty.

Sitting down, I offered a listening ear and for twenty minutes, he spoke to me about his recent struggles. A new friend stole his bike--a crucial tool for his work and lifestyle. He has paperwork for two bank accounts (in a bank that has recently fallen victim to the economic collapse) that he needs to give to his daughters whom he has not seen in five years. He turned 55 in August and spent the entire day alone and depressed in his camper. He only receives $180 each month, most of which goes straight to gas for his camper and propane for his mini-fridge. Minor problems include the wearing of his shoes, the poor condition of his camper, and the heat wave that is passing through Los Angeles.

With my heart at my feet, all I could say with confidence was, "You know, when you come here, you are loved and welcomed. We are always happy to see you."

"This is the only place I can come where people speak to me and use sentences with more than three words. Thank you." His eyes slightly squinted to focus on his thoughts, but his sight was set on nothing. He continued to tell me his thoughts about suicide. "I even have the bridge picked out. I'm going to--"

I abruptly stopped listening, but not early enough to be in denial of his problems. After giving sufficient time to witness him lurch toward his breaking point, I excused myself to help clean up inside the kitchen. Telling a few community members of my concerns, the consensus was to take him to the clinic that is adjacent to our garden.

My friend was unlocking his borrowed bike, suited for a child, when I confronted him. "I'm worried about you. I think we should go see the doctors at the clinic and get you some help."

He pulled his key out of the bolt lock and stared at the ground, "Okay. Anything is better than this."

Getting to see someone at the clinic proved to be more difficult, even after saying the problem was contemplation of suicide. One of the women looked straight at him and, in a disapproving tone, scolded, "Well, why do you want to go do that?!"

Right as he was ready to leave, I snarled, "I think this is a pretty serious issue!" The woman dropped her folded arms in defeat and walked inside to get a nurse.

Now shaking, of nervousness or fear or nearing his tipping point, my friend sat down on a hard plastic chair. The nurse came in and spoke to him across the checker-tiled floor, asking routine questions. After receiving more information about his personal problems than she clearly cared to hear, she wrote him a referral to a social worker who would be able to provide assistance in all the necessary ways. I thanked her for taking her time (past her closing time) to talk with him.

As we walked back to his child-sized bike, I told him that I needed him to make a verbal promise not to hurt himself.

"I won't hurt myself today."

"No," I said sternly. Drawing back to my Resident Assistant training I demanded, "I need you to promise me that you won't hurt yourself until I see you on Saturday."

"Okay," he replied. "I won't hurt myself until Saturday, but I'm saying that because I really like you." We hugged and parted ways.

A community member said I did the most I probably will be able to do. There might not be more I can do to help him, and I have to realize there is so much I do not know about this man and his struggles.

Suddenly, burn out has a new meaning.