I wear my heart on my sleeve. That was obvious to everyone when I first started volunteering with The Relatives.
It was so clear to everyone that the facilitator of the program quickly pulled me aside and cautioned me. She shared that the young adults in this program use manipulation for survival. “It’s all they know,” she said. When I decided to take on the role of mentor, she told me to be careful; to lock up my heart. She knows these kids better than anyone, so I took her words seriously.
Looking back at that moment, I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the advice she gave me. But, in the time since, it has proven itself true which is why I have dreaded writing this story. She is a brilliant young woman with so much potential. I was waiting for her to see what I did: a woman fully capable of succeeding in this life.
This is where heeding that warning about guarding my heart would’ve been wise. But I am not anything if not a compassionate and emotionally invested woman.
And so I dove head first into my relationship with her.
I met my 21-year-old mentee last May. She looked haggard; she was wearing long pants and men’s size 12 black tennis shoes; she had only a lacey sports bra on top. She was hungry.
Before being placed with a mentor, she had one request – to be placed with someone who would not judge her. She has a rare disease known as Proteus Syndrome. Many people know of this disease as Elephant Man Syndrome. It causes overgrowth of bones and is so rare only 120 cases have ever been reported.
As you can imagine growing up with a physical deformity is devastating. For this young woman, the limbs on one side of her body are roughly four times larger than the other side; she also has overgrown hands and feet.
The first time I met her, we went out for lunch. She wanted tacos. Like a floodgate lifted, she immediately told me her story: ran away at 17; picked up, abused and assaulted; mixed up with all the wrong people; and full of self-loathing.
But there was a glimmer of hope— I could see it, as she told me she was ready to break the cycle and turn her life around. Full of shame and anger toward herself, I assured her I’d be there each step of the way.
After lunch, I took her shopping for clothing and essentials. We agreed to meet regularly. In those first weeks, I listened to her cry and scream about the abnormality of her appearance. It was heartbreaking, but I was determined to help.
Shortly thereafter I found myself in a position of rescuing her from herself. And I did. If I’m being honest, initially it was due to guilt. Why has my life worked so well; when her’s is so chaotic and sorrowful?
But even in that sadness there was a reality which offered hope. While the disease causes deformity, she was fully in control of the decisions she was making about her life. And if she could just turn those decisions around, I was sure her life would change. I was also sure that if anyone could help her, I could.
And so I leaped in, again. Sure that with the help of The Relatives and my own strength— she could turn her life around.
What followed was months and months of distress. Though we found affordable housing, she was not happy with it. Instead she chose to renew a toxic relationship and walk away from the goals we had hoped to achieve.
Despite my best efforts; my very best intentions; and all of the resources made available to her, she chose a different path— one I could not walk with her.
A couple of months ago, she completely fell off the grid. The Relatives had warned me about this. In spite of the effort mentors put forth, these young adults often disappear and return to the life we were trying to divert them from.
A few weeks ago, I got a phone call from an unknown number; it was her.
She told me she continued to be unhappy and admitted to returning to an emotionally abusive relationship. “He loves me,” she said— over and over again. This love— of abuse, neglect, and manipulation— looks so different from the love I was offering her.
She is articulate and intelligent and in meeting her I saw all the potential she needed to reach her goals of education, employment, and financial independence. And again, I told her so. But this time I also told her that it was up to her to make these things happen.
My heart screams out for want of proving this better path for her. My soul aches to relieve her of the misery she has been walking in. My big love wants to save her from herself. But I cannot do it for her.
You see, I learned that while I want to give her my big love; what I need to give her is tough love. My job is not to save and enable; my job is to coach and encourage. I am not giving up, but she must be ready to keep her word and her want to do this work— for herself.
You see, no matter what our lot in life— we all choose the wrong path from time to time. And we need those people in our lives who love us with tough love. A love that sees us through all the bullshit and makes us better in the end.
My prayer is that one day she will be ready to walk toward healing. And on that day —like every day in between — my tough love will be here, and I’ll have her back.
And that’s my not so sexy truth.
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