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29 JUNE 2001
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Maryan's Blues

Thom Garfat challenges us to understand what we mean when we talk with clients Ė and to communicate this clearly enough for them also to understand what we mean.

As I write this, Billy Holiday sings melancholy blues in the background. It's a rainy summer afternoon in Montreal Ė the house smells of paste wax and the bird whistles parts of another forgotten song. Holiday's blues fit perfect with the day; my day, at least. But probably not with yours and certainly not with Maryan's.

She's living her own blues trying to figure out how to get her children back from the social service agency, and drinking away her sorrows with a bottle of cheap wine purchased with the remnants of a welfare cheque too thin to live on. The last time she met with the social worker she was told that she would have to change her lifestyle if she hoped to get her children back to live with her again. When she asked what she had to change, the social worker reeled off a list of generalisations that would have confused a schizophrenic; like, she had to take a serious look at the relationship she was involved in with Tod, and think about getting a job or doing something useful with her time. Then there was comment about the size of the apartment she lived in, and how her friends contributed to the home environment being less than desirable for young children. Finally, the worker told Maryan that she would have to demonstrate that she really was working on improving things before the worker could recommend to the judge that Maryan's children be returned to her.

Getting crazier
At the end of that meeting, Maryan slammed her way from the office yelling that the system had her kids and was doing everything it could to keep them. The worker commented to herself that Maryan was getting crazier all the time and noted in her log that she seemed to show no motivation to make the necessary changes. Sounds okay Ė if you know what the worker meant. Maryan didnít. I donít. And frankly, Iím not sure the worker did either.

We use generalisations too easily in our work. In the absence of specificity, how are people supposed to know what is expected of them?

How is Maryan supposed to know what to look at in her relationship with Tod, for example, unless the worker is more specific and clear? And what does it mean, anyway, to take a look at a relationship? Does it mean that she should take a look at it and see something the worker sees; like itís unhealthy, or it holds her back? Iím reminded of a scene in Cat Ballou where Lee Marvin and his horse are leaning drunkenly one morning against a building after a night of serious over-drinking. Lee Marvin's eyes are a painful blistering red and someone comments to him that his eyes look terrible. His reply ď"You should see them from this side!"

We can only see anotherís reality from the outside, looking in. From the inside looking out it may be different, even worse. When the worker looks from the outside-in, she sees the reality of Maryan only as an outsider. If, from this outside perspective, she has something she wants to say, or some advice to offer, she must offer it in a way that has meaning from Maryan's perspective Ė from the inside, looking out. Sounds like the essence of empathy to me.

I change the Billy Holiday music for something more exotic and New Age from Australia and I reflect on how my world is so expansive. Maryan reflects on how hers is so restrictive and controlled: restricted by her limited opportunities and controlled by those who would influence her to live differently. I think about how I would react if someone were to tell me how to change my way of living and my relationships. The anger wells up in me just thinking about it. I canít imagine how enraged Maryan must be to have others tell her what to do without being specific about it.

So I decide to ask her. She bombards me with years of pent-up rage. I am beaten back into my chair by the hostility she feels towards those of us who have the power to control her life. l am torn apart by her pain and agony, the love she feels for her children, and her desire to be with them. The craziness that she feels is being nurtured by her experience of a system afraid to be clear with her.

Not happily ever after
I tell her what we want her to do in very specific terms. She tells me she can do it. I remind her that others have told her before and she hasnít changed her ways. She says that this time it is different. She leaves calmly and we wait to see what happens. She changes some things in her life and her children go home to be with her. They donít live ďhappily ever after" but they manage to stay together.

Later, I ask her why she was able to do it this time when she had not been able to do it before. Her reply? ďI never really knew what had to do before. Once I knew what I had to do, it wasnít so hard."

It makes you wonder Ė and sometimes it makes you crazy, just like Maryan.

If you canít be clear, you shouldnít be in the business.

Garfat, T. (1983) Maryan's Blues. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 8.3

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