I looked down at my phone to a typical text message from the agency. 18/M History of difficult behaviour and violence. Landsborough. 5pm to 9am. y/n? I answered back ‘y’. Upon arrival the support worker was freaking out. He was a short clean cut Sri Lankan Jehovah’s Witness and in his rush out the door he says “be bery bery careful… I have tried everything!”. I thought to myself, “here we go”.
I step into the lounge room of a brand new government funded townhouse and see a young man with dirty snow white sun bleached hair seated nearly horizontal squeezing the last drops of an entire cask of goon mostly into his mouth. “I want to go swimming!” he declared in a fused monosyllabic slur. “Oh swimming is fun isn’t mate but maybe it’s a bit late today, perhaps tomorrow?” I nervously and delicately pleaded in response. You learn quick that you never say no. Even if it has to be “no” you gotta find a way of saying it so it doesn’t feel like no until you’ve got enough trust and care deposited in the relationship account.
You can’t take a blind drunk violent and angry teenage boy who you don’t know swimming at 5pm. But, how do you explain that to him. The best way is to defer it. For a couple of years I worked as an agent for an independent social work agency. There was always a tension between agency and organisations. If you call the organisations’ management generally they weren’t happy that you’re wasting their time which they were paying you good money to deal with, which the agency mostly received: not us agents.
The stuff that was thrown around the room was occasionally interrupted with vulgar barrages of verbal abuse. There’s not much you can do to intervene during that state. Especially when someone is drunk. There’s a few techniques like “co-regulation” and “diversion” but pretty much you gotta just patiently ride it out, mitigate the damage and re-engage when they begin to calm down. But it got worse…
He took off out the door exclaiming he was going to kill himself.
I followed him to the edge of the train tracks. In these moments it’s best to stay at a distance so you can see them clearly but avoid provoking “the chase”. Best technique I developed was to obviously and overly casually lean against a tree or something facing the opposite direction of the client, read a book or look at your phone and then occasionally glance at them with your peripheral vision. Of course the entire time he was hurling abuse at me and screaming about ending his life.
I called my agency to inform them. The on call manager abruptly retorted, “there wasn’t an issue before you arrived!”.
“Um yeh I guess, so should we get the police in to get him off the train tracks before he gets decapitated by the next train?”.
She finishes the conversation with, “you’re there, deal with it”.
The idea of facing the other way is that you’re passively antagonising the client so that they re-engage with you in a safer forum. So they come to you and abuse you face to face. He climbed up onto an industrial train that had pulled in and was using it as a stage to continue his brutal performance of abuse to an unimpressed audience of one. You see if I followed him onto the train I would have been in a dangerous place myself. Even then if I get to him what am I going to do? I needed to be close enough so if a train was coming and he was going to allow it to run over him I would be close enough to grab him in time. Eventually my provocative passive stance succeeded in manipulating him to get closer to me to tell me how much of an arsehole I was for not taking him swimming. At least he was off the train tracks!
Then it got worse…
He ran to one of the main roads in Landsborough, which fortunately isn’t very busy. He laid down on the road so a car would run over him. The first couple of cars swerved around him but it wasn’t going to be long until someone would be checking their newsfeed while driving and his life would be extinguished in a succinct splat. As I ran to him I noticed he lay motionless on the bitumen. I thought it was a ruse at first. I check and he’d actually passed out. Thank God, I thought. I picked him up and threw him over my shoulder. I began the walk back to his home carrying him on my right shoulder. I remember walking back clasping on to this idealistic dream of dropping him on to his bed and I’d get the rest of the shift just to read a book in peace and still get paid. We were only a few metres from his home when he woke up. He had forgotten everything and didn’t know who I was. He immediately began thrashing and hitting me while I was still carrying him. I released him. He was in a state of total fury.
Then it got worse…
I went into the staff room and shut the door. None of the doors have locks. I once had a manager with too many degrees and no common sense explain to me that locks on doors are “psychologically abusive to our clients”. The concept is that physical barriers create psychological barriers. The issue is it’s dangerous when you’re working with violent criminals. Here’s a little tip. If someone is chasing you and there’s no lock on your door you can jam your shoes right against the base of the door and hold the handle. It’s nearly impossible to break through because the person trying to get through can’t push the door and turn the handle at the same time. The grip on your shoes prevent the door from moving. I was leaning against the door hoping he’ll just pass out again. It was January which is Summer in Queensland, Australia and it was hot. It’s probably why he wanted to go swimming.
Then it got worse…
I heard the clinking of metal objects as he rummaged through the kitchen drawers. I was painfully familiar with this dreaded unmistakable sound. “I’m going to get you” he screamed as he thrust the blade into the door. I made sure the grip on my shoes was firmly as possible interlocking between the carpet and the base of the door. The door wasn’t going to open. I assessed the thickness of the door and extrapolating the amount of stabs necessary to get through. “I’ll be fine… I thought to myself”. A few minutes went by and he continued hacking away at the door like a woodpecker on crystal meth. I thought surely he would pass out again but drunken fury was driving him. I realised this was about to get real serious and turn into another knife fight. At this point I definitely had to call the police. Now the problem was when I entered the room I had thrown the phone onto the bed with my other stuff which was a few metres away. I reached as far as I could. No luck. There was no way to get to it without removing my feet from the base of the door. In a matter of seconds he’d be in my room with a knife and his mind set to murder. I looked down. The tip of the blade had just pierced the paint on my side of the door. He was sitting on the ground, or perhaps on his knees, while stabbing at the door. This meant the height of the hole where the blade had protruded was at a particularly uncomfortable height for me. I was now on my tippy toes to avoid receiving an unholy circumcision. I had to make a run for it.
I lunged for the phone as he continued to stab the door. He could feel the door give way without my force against it holding it steady. In a moment I had grabbed the phone and raced back as he tried to barge through only managing to stop him with the door centimetres ajar. Fortunately I was stronger than him and was able to shut the door easily enough. His resolve increased and the blade relentlessly pounded into the door. I called police and asked them to get there immediately. I’d been in this situation many times in my line of work and “immediately” could be an hour. I impressed upon them to hasten. The blade was well through the door at this point. He was starting to tire and the blade was jamming into the jagged parts of the hole. I informed him the police were on their way. I’ve found it useful in these situations to communicate it in a way that builds rapport with your assailant like, “hey man, the police are on their way, should we put the weapon away and make a run for it?”. People are less likely to stab a friend who’s looking out for them.
I heard the siren and footsteps. They called for him to come down with his hands in the air. As I heard his footsteps walk away outside, I left the room and slowly followed. The officer had his pistol drawn and pointed without hesitation, or any room for discussion. The officer demanded he put the knife on the ground. He immediately complied and the knife went on the ground. So did he, the officer was quickly on top of him and he was cuffed and stuck in the back of the police vehicle. I breathed deeply and freely for the first time in a couple of hours. The manager of the NGO I was with that day came down and spoke with the officer. There was nowhere for the kid to go. There was noone else to look after the kid and they weren’t going to charge or arrest him. He’d sobered up by now and was apologetic. They asked if I would stay and look after him. I needed the cash and that was my only job at the time so I continued my shift. It’s hard to describe how disconcerting it is hanging out with someone only hours after they’ve tried to kill you. It’s awkward. I called my manager and gave an update. She was glad I had sorted out the mess I had apparently started.
It’s hard going to sleep after something like that. Adrenaline is surging and you find yourself assessing every word and action wondering if you could’ve done something better to get an even better outcome. There’s also the thought that they may kill you in your sleep. I’ve worked with psychopaths where it’s a real risk but when you first work with someone you don’t know if it’s the alcohol, triggered behaviour, sociopathy… regardless I jammed the staff bed against the door with my feet at that end… worst case he could barge the door open and slash my feet but at least he wouldn’t be able slit my throat. As I lay there in that hot little room with the tiniest draft blowing over my feet through the hole that had been fashioned earlier in the door, I began to feel grateful.
When you support people who are broken they just seem to be immersed and surrounded with hopelessness. It’s like there’s a dark conspiracy to permanently detain them in that state and anyone bold and compassionate enough to intervene invokes the wrath and consequence of their sins. I’d be reluctant to make a solid theory or theology around this but I’ve doing it long enough now to at least state this publicly on my blog. And here’s the point to saying it: If you’re going to step up and help someone in significant need you need to be prepared for the cost. I see people who don’t do this all the time. Just the same as I did when I was young. They have high expectations on their boss, manager, teacher, colleagues and clients, patients to be thanked and validated for their selfless deeds and when they don’t receive it they are consumed with despondency, disappointment and bitterness. Their hearts become calloused and they give up on what they’re meant to be doing. My encouragement is to simply get this sorted in your heart and mind before you accept the mission of helping someone on the journey out of trauma.
Please ensure with all humility that you are embracing the limitations of your humanity. You should be able to say no totally free of guilt. If not there’s something wrong with YOU. When you reach this place you are liberated from any manipulation around you to help or do something how “they say” you should. Because you’re not seeking their gratitude, validation or trying to impress anyone. Your ego becomes irrelevant because you know you’re loved either way and you don’t need to do anything or say anything to receive more love. You should be in a state of contentment which is actually propelling you-not receiving contentment and validation through the help. This is not healthy for anyone. I believe the ideal expectation should be “failure and disappointment are most likely but, despite the odds, I will patiently hope for the greatest miraculous outcome”.