Not long after starting my job I had to do a training course on HIV. We learned how to give people HIV tests, how to counsel them about their risks, and how to give them the results. Generally, those of us on the course worked with those who were at risk: drug users and the homeless. During the course of this class (it was 5 days long) I learned a lesson that I hope will stick with me for a long time, one that was incredibly important especially with relation to these populations.
On the first day we all sat down somewhere in the classroom. Most of us knew no one else in the class and just sat down wherever we could. It was an all day class so we spent all day in these same places. The next morning we come in and we are told we have to sit somewhere different to the day before and next to entirely different people. This is amazingly difficult (do you remember having “a spot” during school? Maybe you still do at lunch or in some other setting). We had only been in that place for 1 day and we already didn’t want to change. The seat and who we were next to meant nothing, and were completely irrelevant to anything in our lives, but we still all struggled with the change.
The point of this? It was a lesson on how hard change is. Most of us worked trying to help the homeless get jobs and not be homeless, or trying to help drug addicts stop using drugs, or even just trying to get people to use condoms when they have sex. We–who didn’t exactly fall into the homeless or drug addict categories–had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to stay that way if there was a chance not to. I spoke to one woman who worked at Healthcare for the Homeless who found that some people would purposefully lose their housing soon after getting it so as to be able to go back to their old “home”. It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to be homeless or want to keep using drugs, but this little exercise in seating really struck a nerve.
Change is hard. Even small change is difficult. Imagine that you’ve been homeless or using drugs for months or years. Yes, you may want to change and do better, but change is scary. Homelessness or drug use has been all some people have known for years; it’s hard to imagine anything else, even if it is “better”.
I think this is a lesson that is important for us all to remember, especially those of us working with or personally affected by homelessness, drug use, or other such “bad behaviors”, even types of mental disorders: self harm, eating disorders, even depression. If someone isn’t changing as you think s/he should or acting like s/he wants to get better then just take a moment to think about how hard it would be for you to change your entire life and start again. For these people, especially drug addicts, to get better often involves losing touch with your past, getting rid of all your old friends and starting anew. This is scary!
So maybe next time you judge someone for not “fixing” their life, or getting better as fast as they should, just think for a minute about if you could just up and change your whole life in a day.