Teeter Totter Tip

Posted: March 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

When I was a kid, the teeter totter both terrified me and excited me. We had an old school teeter totter at our playground which meant you could not only ‘bump’ someone sending their butt high in the air while they held on for dear life, but you could also ‘tip’ them by twisting your side of the teeter totter just enough that the torque tipped the other kid off into an unassuming pile of woodchips (which, by the way, who ever came up with that to be universally placed on children’s playgrounds?!?!).

Some time ago, I was sitting in my office at my University when there was a knock at my door. A well kept man was standing in the doorway. He had gotten my name from the Allentown Rescue Mission and came to me seeking my help. He was enrolled in classes at my University and found himself living in the Emergency Shelter at the Allentown Rescue Mission. He went on to tell me that he had been injured while working at a moving company several months ago. While he was receiving workman’s compensation, he was struggling to keep his car in good repair. It needed a $500 transmission and he had been overdrafting his bank account each month to try to put money toward the repair. Determined not to miss class, he had been driving to school going 15mph down a major highway with his flashers on several times per week. As we talked, I learned that he had been homeless for the last two years. Sometimes living in his car, sometimes living on a friends couch and recently, living in a shelter. He would save up enough money to rent a hotel room for the weekend when he had his children but he worried that he would not be able to come up with the money this month to do that. He seemed to be a man in on the verge of desperation.

As we talked, he told me of his attempts at getting help with housing, insurance and jobs. It always seemed that people wanted to pass you along to the next department, never really taking the time to listen. I offered to make some phone calls on his behalf to help him secure a bed in the shelter for a little while longer. He also seemed like a good candidate for some local rental assistance programs and I volunteered to call the local agency on his behalf. He looked genuinely greatful. As I racked my brain for any other resources and connections to help him, I inquired if he had told his professors or his academic advisor about his housing situation. He glanced at me and sheepishly admitted that he doesn’t tell anyone because he is embarrassed. As I wrote down some instructions on a business card, I couldn’t help but to comment that there is nothing wrong with him and that this situation does not have to define the rest of his life. I was saying it more as a statement than as a pep talk but as I looked up, I noticed he was crying. He went on to tell me that the last time someone said something like that to him was 2 years ago just before he lost both his mother and his father in the same year. The downward spiral had begun shortly after their deaths.

Hope. We think it is amorphous and invisible but it really isn’t. After meeting with him, you could see some optimism be restored because someone was willing to put themselves out there on his behalf. I made no promises of housing or prosperity, something I have learned to be quite clear about. But I could see that he wanted to be better than what he saw his life becoming.

It reminded me of a study commonly referred to as the Rat Park study performed by psychologist Bruce Alexander. The study looked at addiction behavior and how the environment affects addiction. The traditional rat experiment on addiction has a rat (or rats) in a metal cage with access to regular water and access to cocaine infused water. The rats inevitably chose the cocaine water and usually ended up gorked or dead from overdose. Alexander wondered what happened when you gave rats the same access to the drug but placed them in a supportive environment with all the wonderful things that rats would love to enjoy, including other happy rats. What he found is that most of the rats wanted nothing to do with the cocaine water. Though readily available, they chose the regular water and to have ‘fun’ in Rat Park.

So many of us are like my student and many others who wind up in the shelters and soup kitchens. Teetering. He had a job and a family. A house and a sense of belonging. But as things started to unravel, so did his supportive environment. I am not saying he was or is perfect- a concept that I find moot and boring- but I am suggesting that we live in a world where Rat Park is directly connected to the bare metal cage. Individuals end up feeling alone, embarrased, unsure of where to turn or how to get out. They forget that the two worlds are connected by a two-way street. For some, hard times represent a ‘bump’ but are lucky enough to keep their seat when family, friends and community support guide them to safety. The alternative?
Teeter. Totter. Tip.

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