When I was in school, and having a hard time with my field placement, I remember my supervisor telling me to always remember that I was seeing just a small part of someone’s life – not the big picture.
People would come to pick up harm reduction supplies and they’d be in withdrawal – the worst sickness I had ever seen on someone still moving. Or they’d be screaming at their friend or partner. They’d be hitting redial on their cellphone over and over and over, trying to call their dealer on the phone, getting increasingly agitated. Or they’d be begging to use someone else’s phone. People would show up so high that they’d fall asleep on the cabinet where I was working. People would show up after court dates weeping or furious.
Being surrounded by intensity makes it hard to remember the bigger picture. Sometimes I would go home at the end of my day and feel my own intense despair – so much suffering. So many upsetting conversations that I had no power to diffuse (which wasn’t my job, anyway, but I didn’t fully understand that at the time).
I never got to see the quiet times with loved ones. The laughter. The sitting down and watching a TV show. Sharing a snack with their dog. The little meaningful, and meaningless, moments that make up a life.
But now – usually – I am able to remember. Not just for clients but for everyone. The moment of awfulness that I see, in the moment, isn’t the big picture. It’s just the moment. And it will pass and it, in and of itself, doesn’t define the human.