“It’ll change you forever,” they said. “This job makes you cynical.” Heard it often when I first started. Cops say the same thing.
It’s true, my job has changed me fundamentally and forever, only it hasn’t made me a cynic. I hope it never will. Sure, I’ve seen the ugly side of humanity. Daily. But that is why I signed up, to trudge along the darker streets of my city among those who find themselves hurt, sick, alone, afraid, beaten, shotdown… But humans aren’t irrevocably evil. I’d rather believe people, as a whole, are fundamentally good, and beautiful… sometimes tragically so. Yes, we have the ability to inflictastonishing pain unto others and, especially, ourselves. But this has only caused me to see how triumphant we can be at the end of it all.
We are some tough motherfuckers. The resilience of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me. We can find ourselves at the very definition of slimy bottom, having nothing, feeling nothing, seemingly wanting nothing, and rise, slowly, steadily, out of the quagmire of hopelessness. It is at our worst that we show our best.
Losing hope is easy. I’m sure I could do it. Go about my day, doing what I can, detach, go home, come back to work 2 days later, rinse, repeat. I can look at the troupe of kids in the crumbling two flat amidst squalor and irrevocable poverty and whisper “you never had a chance.” I can look at that young lost girl form the suburbs, the scarred landscape of her forearms, and whisper “you chose to be like this.” I can look at that man under the Lake Street tracks, wet and frostbit and hungry and alone, and look away, maybe even get a little annoyed: “it’s nobody’s fault but yours.” I can ignore the person, I can ignore the story,I can ignore the truth. Fuck that. Not me.
Most of us will jump at the opportunity to tell people all the nasty grizzly bloody fiery “cool” stuff we see. Fine. You get used to it, and most simply wear it like another badge. You deal with it in whatever way you deem fit, you tell whomever will listen or you run 5 miles or you golf or you drink or whatever.
The look, however, I can’t seem to shake. That look. I’ve looked in the eyes of many people I’ve just Narcan’d back to life and the results are almost always the same: confusion, then effusive gratitude, then a timid request to turn up the heat, and then… something in their eyes I can’t quite describe. Fear? Shame? Hopelessness? Frustration? Pain? I don’t know. But that look cuts deep. It goes into you and through you. And I know, unlike other times when someone got beat up or can’t breathe or is having a heart attack or got shot or hit by a car – there’s nothing I can do. Turn up the heat, get them an extra blanket, wish them luck.
The war vet, riding the down-sloping funnel that PTSD can be, using his prescription meds to treat not so much his shattered knees and back, but his broken mind instead. He had the look. So did his frustrated but ever-caring mother. By the 4th time wemeet we’re on a first-name basis. The 6th time I finally don’t have enough time or enough Narcan or enough luck to make any difference, and the peace he so sought in this world I can onlyhope he finds in the next.
It’s not just ODs. Pinned eyes or not, that look is everywhere here.
The 16-yr old girl bouncing between mom and dad’s abusive homes, numbing her pain with anything she could get her hands on since the age of 13… definitely had the look. And, what canI do? To correct her tailspin she needs many things. Expensive things. She needs honest doctors. Sympathetic social workers. A treatment program designed to treat her very unique needs. A support network to at least mimic a parent’s warm embrace. But, in this moment, looking into her big, dark, lost, watery eyes… what can I do? Turn up the heat, get her an extra blanket, wish her luck, and hope we never get on a first-name basis.
I chose this. This is my city, my home. Not a lot of people I grew up with ever got out. Most of those that did get outSTAYED the fuck out. I jumped back in. I like the stink of it. But, if I’m to continue roaming these dark alleys and pretending like “that look” doesn’t haunt me, then I have to believe that some will beat it, that it can be conquered. I refuse to get cynical. That would mean giving up. I have to believe in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit, that those in seemingly inescapable pain will find salvation, not in a needle or in a church but within themselves. I have to believe in the fight.