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 were going to be working with those who were at risk. 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 at random in the classroom. Most of us didn’t know anyone else in the class and just sat down wherever we could. It was an all-day class so we spent the whole day in these same places. The next morning we trooped in and were told to to sit somewhere different to the day before, next to entirely different people. It was 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 one 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.
It was a lesson on how hard change is, and it was eye-opening. Most of us worked trying to help the homeless get jobs and shelter, or to help drug addicts stay clean and sober, or even just to help get people to use condoms when they have sex. We, the people working with them had a hard time understanding why anyone would want to stay that way if there was a chance not to. Because we knew about their struggles only in theory. Because we were outsiders. Because we were not the ones being asked to change.
I spoke to one woman who had been working with the homeless for years, and she told me that some people would purposefully lose their housing soon after getting it so as to be able to go back to their old “home”. Some don’t, but some do, because it’s what they know and are familiar with. Adapting to the change — even if the change is, for the most part viewed as advantageous — can throw people off balance. It isn’t what they know. 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 hit a nerve.
Change is hard. Even small change is difficult. Whether you’ve been homeless or doing drugs or in a bad relationship, or if there’s some small insignificant bit about yourself that you don’t like, 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. For them, 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 they should or not acting like they want to get better, take a moment to think about how hard it would be for you to change your entire life and start again. For anyone, getting better often involves losing touch with your past, getting rid of all your old friends, and starting anew. And it’s scary.
So maybe next time you judge someone for not “fixing” their life, or getting better as fast as you think they should, just think for a minute about if you could just up and change your whole life in a day. Would you be able to? Or would you fail? Sometimes, what we need most when we’re trying to change is nothing more than a little compassion. But that compassion will make all the difference.