The University of Experience teaches more than a classroom.
I first heard about Dr. Phil in 2000. I tuned into Oprah’s show on a day off from work. But I wasn’t impressed. I thought, “Deadra should have a TV show.”
It’s a ’90s thing
I have a baby face. Before I grew a beard in the late 2000s, people thought I was younger than I was. I signed up with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps when I graduated from college in 1996. They sent me to Buffalo, New York to work as a case manager at a supportive housing program for people living with AIDS.
Benedict House was actually two houses on Plymouth Street, and a third house on Virginia (before consolidating into one building on Main Street). Deadra returned as house manager at Virginia Street in early 1997. I showed up on the doorstep one day.
“Who are you?” She asked, firmly and skeptically.
“I’m the case manager.”
“You twelve years old.” And she smiled.
Deadra had been on medical leave. Her hair was very short. She showed me a scar at the base of her skull.
“I had a brain tumor. But God isn’t ready for me to come home yet.”
AIDS was different in the mid to late 1990s. Protease inhibitors had just been introduced. Before that there was AZT, which one guy said made him feel like someone cut off his head and vomited inside. Before 1987, there were no AIDS medications, except to treat the symptoms.
The people at Benedict House were living with AIDS and had been, or were in danger of being, homeless. Most had a history of substance abuse. And most were men, but a few were women—and women with AIDS defied stereotypes of the day.
Deadra thought I was naive. I took what people said at face value and seemed surprised when addicts lied to me.
Deadra was my teacher.
She told me her story of addiction and recovery. When I left Buffalo in 1999 she had been sober for 10 years. She gave me her 10-year Narcotic Anonymous coin.
People relapse. Recovery isn’t always a straight line. I remember one time when a resident was preaching up a storm about recovery.
Deadra said, “She either relapsed, or she will.”
I was surprised. “But she’s so passionate about recovery.”
Deadra was unimpressed. “You ever read Shakespeare? ‘The gentleman doth protest too much’?”
When the tox screen came in, Deadra took the woman’s hand, smiled and said, “Honey, you ain’t made of lemonade.”
She gently declined to accept excuses, and after acknowledging her own struggles with getting clean, redirected the resident to an action plan.
How do you combine compassion with firm, unwavering boundaries? I’ve seen Deadra (and others) do it, but I don’t have that skill. Not yet.
I can be compassionate. And I can be firm when pushed far enough. But I struggle with combining the two. If I cared more about other people’s well-being, I’d put my social anxiety aside set clearer boundaries. Or when pushed too far, I’d have a better perspective.
I think about Deadra a lot. She’s out there somewhere, maybe a grandmother by now, and I hope she and her family are well. There are other colleagues from the past quarter century I think about. People with qualities I wish I had—that I can have, if I keep trying.