Shelter – A Newbie’s Tale

The first month I worked at a domestic violence shelter opened my eyes to the world of victim advocacy. Oh, I knew about domestic violence. I had lived in it for a decade during my formative years. The experiences I had growing up certainly lent me the ability to have empathy for anyone going through family violence.  There was a kinship among those of us that had walked down that dark and scary path.

An oppressive weight tried to silence us continually. It began with our abusers, telling us not to tell and that no one would believe us if we did. It continued with friends, family, neighbors and society. They did not always mean to silence us, but they often doubted our stories and questioned our choices. The rare offers of help often came with strings that were more difficult to navigate than the ones our abusers used to control us. We were not prepared for how much of a hardship it was to tell our truth to other people.

When I started at the shelter, I appreciated being the person who would hear the story. One thing I knew to be true was that when someone told me of the horror they had lived through, it was an honor. It did not matter if the details did not line up or the story was scattered and pieced together over multiple conversations. Being the hearer of someone else’s trauma was not just a job, it was a privilege.

I learned how to listen without talking at all about my own experience. When someone was in crisis, the last thing they wanted to hear was anyone else’s tale of woe taking over their time. I learned how to pay attention, even when it did not look like the survivor was paying attention to me. The heart of all of it was that it was not about me at all.

The first lesson that advocacy was going to look different than I had imagined came on my very first night on shift, and my very first hotline call to answer. Carrie had worked at the shelter the longest and had another job she worked during the week. She would pick up shifts and train the new staff members as needed. That first afternoon she gave me a tour of the shelter.

The shelter was just a house. I had probably driven by it any number of times in the years I had lived in this town and never knew it was there. It did possess a certain spacial magic. Once you got inside it was much larger than it seemed on the outside. The first day I was there it was a little hard to keep track of where exactly the office was located. The kitchen was large with a lot of cabinets that were painted an interesting mint green. From one particular vantage point, there were six different wallpapers visible. The living room had an interesting set of denim and floral print furniture and boasted an entire wall painted in a mural of ships along a dock.

I must have had an interesting look on my face when I spotted the mural because Carrie explained, “Some really generous people donated this furniture and that mural. It was featured in a magazine.” I replied, “Oh” and we both nodded weirdly and stared at it for a few moments before we continued with the tour. There were four large bedrooms. When I say large, I mean really large. One room held four sets of bunk beds and still had a lot of room to walk around. The entire place could hold up to 22 people, if you slept one on the couch.

Carrie explained to me the ins and outs of what an advocate did during a shift. We answered the hotline and were there for anyone in shelter who needed us. My shift was over the weekend, so there was not as much business that residents would be handling. It was mostly just being there with them and setting the alarm at night, answering the door when anyone stopped by, and just generally being the person in charge if something happened.  She showed me a flow chart for answering a hotline call that included asking if the caller was in a safe place to talk, needed medical attention, and simply just asking what happened. I studied that chart intensely, and never once used it.

I slept in the advocate office and Carrie slept on the couch in the living room that first night. She took the mobile phone with her so that she would hear it if it rang. At 2:15 Saturday morning, I was torn viciously from my half sleep by the peal of the phone ringing loudly. My first hotline call was happening. Carrie came quickly into the office and motioned for me to answer.

The woman was at a truck stop in a town about 45 minutes away. I asked if she was in a safe place and she replied, “What the fuck do you think? I’ve been abandoned at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere and I have no fucking place to go!” I looked at Carrie, not sure what to do. “Keep going” she mouthed, “You’re doing fine!” So, I marched ahead.  I asked the lady the questions, she sort of told me what happened, got angry that I asked, and then told me what she wanted. I gave her the best information I could give her based on where she was and what could happen immediately.

After the call was over, Carrie smiled and said, “You did good, kid!” She was only a year older than me, but it was the right thing to say. We laughed. “It will be easier now that you’ve done one. The fact that you started out getting cussed out is good. It’s all down hill from here” she told me.  She was right, the next call was easier. I didn’t get cussed at even once in that call!

Although I had a bachelor’s degree in psychology, I learned a lot more about mental illness that June that I ever thought I would. The second Friday that I worked, when I came in a new resident was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner. She was very quiet and subdued. She nodded at me as I said hello and went into the office. I didn’t hear from her at all the rest of the night. At 3:30 the next morning, I heard banging in the kitchen. The staff office was located right off the kitchen. I opened the top half of the Dutch door on the office entrance and looked out. She was in the kitchen, lights on full, scrubbing away. “Oh, I’m just cleaning” she said. She furiously wiped down cabinets, washed dishes, mopped, and even cleaned the baseboards of the kitchen.

She lived with manic depression and had cycled up in the night. I just asked her to keep the noise to a minimum for those who were sleeping, and I left her to it. I found out the next day that her grown children would wait for her to refill her prescriptions and then steal her medication and go sell it. It was a reminder that everyone at the shelter had a huge set of problems in addition to the domestic violence that had led them there.

One of the other survivors had grown up in an abusive home long before she met the man who she had called us to help her escape from. She had a long history with drug use. She loved her family and showed me many pictures of her twin sister who was living “a good life” and of her children who were not with her anymore. Every night before she could go to bed, she would stand in the kitchen and eat a pickled egg and drink a child’s sippy cup full of chocolate milk.  The milk had to be in the sippy cup, and she could not sleep without the egg. She endured no small amount of ribbing from other residents. Some were grossed out.

Trauma does weird things to us. It often leaves us with compulsions and survival mechanisms that do not make sense to anyone else. She could laugh at herself about having to use the sippy cup, but if it was in the dishwasher and she had to wait, her hands would shake. I would just stand with her in the kitchen and ask about her family while we both waited for the machine to finish its cycle.

In those early days I did not really know what I was supposed to be doing. I would run back in the office if the phone rang, but I spent most of my time in the living room or sitting outside in the smoking area and chatting with people.

We sat at the office desk when people first came in to fill out paperwork, or if I just happened to be in there and someone wanted to talk alone. Most of the information I gathered happened informally. Before I would go to sleep, I would make whatever notes I needed to in people’s files based on the conversations we had that day.

There was no shortage of calls made to my supervisor to ask random questions. Every single time I called Mary’s cell, (our Executive Director) she answered with a lot of patience and helped me figure out how to make the best decision. I learned which situations I could handle myself and which ones required a higher level of authority.

3 weeks into June, we had 21 residents in shelter. Aside from the emergency use of a couch if we needed to, we were at max capacity. 14 of those residents were children under the age of 8. The sounds of shelter could have been described as a “cacophony”. I settled a large number of disputes about shared spaces and basic communal living. It is not easy to share living space with strangers even when you have not just experienced a trauma. When you have just experienced trauma, basic things become incredibly important. There had been no specific training about this dispute settling business.

A couple ladies got into a real argument over a tomato that had been left in the kitchen. The “great tomato ordeal” would live in my mind for a long time. It was never about the tomato, of course. Every dispute and disagreement and frustration was about someone’s desperate need to gain back some control in their lives. It could be hard to remember that sometimes in the moment. I did not always do a good job of it. I had my fair share of residents who were older than me remind me that I did not know anything yet, and lament how could I possibly understand where they were coming from. They were right, I did not know much.

I learned not to say that I understood unless I had been in that exact situation. While abusers tend to use the same tactics, everyone’s experience is their own and is completely unique to them. They are the experts of their own lives, just like I am the expert of mine.  I learned not to tell anyone “It’s going to be okay” because I did not know that it would be. Many people would leave that program and go back to an abuser or try something important and fail at it. I could not make a promise like that.

Staying at the shelter all weekend had a unique level of stress. I mostly worried about the phone ringing at night and the possibility that someone’s abuser might show up at the shelter. We all watched the windows and the streets vigilantly there. Nothing happened on that block we did not witness ourselves or get alerted to by a resident who saw something. Many an innocent passerby had the police called to check them out because someone felt they looked suspicious.

Aside from the phone, I felt at home in the shelter. The weird cadence of living with violence was familiar to me, it was a dance I knew well. I knew how to jump conversation to conversation and not be phased by the inappropriate. The real shock for me, was being considered part of the “system”. I was now one of the outside helpers who were not to be trusted. Trust here had to be earned.

I did not earn that trust with every client. I made mistakes. I would cringe in retrospect remembering conversations I had with some of the clients. It was okay that I made mistakes. I learned something each time that happened, although I certainly felt bad that they had to endure that experience with me for me to learn.

The most important thing I learned that first month was that helping survivors was not uniform. It was different for every person. What I thought they needed was almost completely irrelevant. I learned the key to being a good advocate is remembering that it’s not about me. Knowing that set the stage to providing legitimate assistance. It would be true in every client whose journey I got to be a part of for the next 11 years.


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