It’s an odd feeling, knowing that someone who lives ten minutes away from you has a life so different from yours. I began volunteering at a legal center on the west side of Chicago while I was studying to be a psychologist. I wanted to participate in the holistic work that this program was doing. As it turned out, this was my education.
Maybe the expensive classes and textbooks taught me some things, but the stories I heard transformed my life.
They helped me see the world differently. I hope they might do the same for you. This is a story of a person behind the statistics and headlines. You do not hear this on the news, but this is the truth.
Jay* was 17 when I met him. He has one of those smiles that makes everyone in the room smile. He wanted to come to therapy because he couldn’t stop thinking about the day his mother was killed. His life had been hard before that, but since she died, he had to provide for himself. Jay was involved with the legal center because a friend stole something and Jay was arrested for it. Because he always maintained his innocence instead of taking a plea bargain, his case was drawn out over years. Multiple systemic failures resulted in him being taken back into custody, which caused him to miss school, which delayed his graduation by about two years.
Jay was trying hard to succeed in school because it had been important to his mother, but working hard in his studies also brought back the traumatic memories of losing her. It was complicated. Doing good work in school made him feel good, but also had a sharp pain attached, reminding him that his mother was not here to see him succeed. Being constantly punished for being “bad” even though he was doing his best to survive was beginning to take a toll on his psyche. It was difficult for him to stay motivated when the school, the police, and the court systems did not seem to acknowledge his hard work.
Jay frequently had flashbacks of the horrible day he saw his mother shot and killed. The flashbacks made it hard to leave his house, much less focus in school. She, too, was innocent, shot in front of her home while returning from a date with a man who had enemies from his former life.
Jay was afraid to cry because he thought that if he started, he would never be able to stop. The pain lived inside him, gnawing at the corners of his mind while he tried to concentrate and motivate himself to overcome the obstacles in his way. He often did not have enough food to eat, and had no adult looking out for his physical needs. He had no heat in one of the coldest Chicago winters. The relative who had taken over guardianship of Jay was dealing with her own pain, and could not always tend to his needs.
Jay felt he had to be strong always. Truth be told, his life required a strength that I could not have imagined. I would never have made it. He constantly amazed me, never giving up. One day, he cried. And then he thanked me for letting him cry. That moment is one of the greatest honors of my life. Jay has had many ups and downs in his life since then.
I will never forget the day that he was shot. The fear and helplessness I felt gave me the tiniest window into what it must have been like for him to live every day. I don’t know how he functioned. He was okay, and eventually graduated high school, just like his mother always wanted. He became a father. It is often hard for him to find work, because of his record (he finally pled guilty to that crime he did not commit, because he was too exhausted to keep fighting). Sometimes it is still hard for him to focus or motivate himself because of that gnawing pain. Yet he still smiles the smile that makes the whole world smile.
It seems like Jay’s whole life has been a story of wrong place, wrong time. But the “wrong place” is his home. He used to say that he wished he could have been born where I lived—ten minutes and a world away.
*Jay is a pseudonym used to protect his confidentiality.
Rachel Smith is a Clinical Psychologist from Chicago, IL. She currently works at Agave Studio and continues to volunteer at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center, providing trauma-informed therapy to people like Jay. She lives with the world’s snuggliest 50lb lap dog, Maya.