Burning Up From The Inside Out
The following few paragraphs are an excerpt from the introduction to a book I want to write about the experiences that I had working at a group home. I've written a draft of the book but it needs a lot of work. I don't know if I'll ever release it but here's the beginning of it if I do:
Raging. If I had to describe the year I worked at the group home in a single-word summary, I would have to say that it was raging. Raging like a fire that can’t be contained; a fire surrounded by whirling winds that are only fanning the flames. Raging like a tiger who has only just been put in a cage and still has the energy and memory to fight for a better experience of life. Raging like what a drug-addicted parent looks like to the five year old on the other end of the two by four in the middle of the night. Raging. Nearly every moment of every day that I worked at the group home was seething with rage. And even though it has now been years since I was immersed in the scalding rage of that existence, there are still moments when the rage bubbles back up inside of me just because I remember something about the way that it was back then. I am certain the children that I worked with must sometimes feel that same way. That is, the children who are still able to feel anything at all.
The thing about the rage was that it was coming at everyone from all sides. The few parents who were still trying to get their children back raged at the staff that worked at the group home. The staff raged at the system on good days and at the children on bad days. And the kids raged at everything and everyone because they didn’t know what else to do with the anger that burned inside of them. The only way that they could cope with it was to let out the steam now and then. Steam burns more than you might think.
I only worked at the group home for one year but the fire that lived there left permanent burn scars on my heart. I can only imagine the scars held by the children who were left in my care. Children who burned with pain and anger and sadness. Children who literally took a flame and burned their clothing, their beds, their rooms in this place that they were asked to call home but where they were never treated like family. Children who burned themselves in acts of self-mutilation designed to let the pain ease out one pinprick at a time.
And then there was the one child who literally burned up from the inside out, his flesh eaten away by the fire of an illness that could have been prevented if only one of us had been paying attention. We weren’t. There were too many other things going on, too many distractions, too many needs that could not be filled. The cracks in this system were so big that entire children slipped through them and we didn’t even realize it until they were gone.
This story is about those children, the ones who didn’t have a voice back then, the ones who never grew old enough to develop that voice for themselves. It is also about me and the people like me, the folks in their twenties and thirties who so badly wanted to make a difference and only got burned in the process. Working in a group home is a physically draining, emotionally harrowing experience. It is worse than being a parent, tougher than working as a teacher. You have a lot of responsibility and no rights at all. You have a lot of work to do and no training to do it. The broken system does not just scar the children who are forced to grow up in it. It scars those of us who helped to raise those children even though many of us had barely finished growing up ourselves.
A raging fire is a fascinating thing. You are compelled to look at it even though you are terrified to go near it. You are leveled by its power and yet desire to do something to limit the negative effects of that power. It burns almost everything in its path and yet occasionally something is randomly spared, sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. It leaves devastation in its wake. However, it also leaves room for new growth. There is a phoenix in the tale of every fire that ever existed and this tale is no exception.