His name was Michael, and at 14 years of age he already lived longer than you and I combined. The first day I opened his case file it read like a Stephen King novel. Michael’s story began years earlier and unfolded like a bad movie that should never have been made. At the age of six, he lived alone with his drug-addicted mother, drowning in a sea of chaos.
And then…a glimmer of hope.
It was cruel really. The kind of hope that makes you let your guard down, and tells you to believe again. His maternal grandparents took him in, and Michael’s grandfather offered love and compassion that spilled over in buckets. He loved Michael dearly, but their time together would not last long. Michael’s only source of affection would die violently of a heart attack in his seven-year old arms, his grandfather’s life, a mere flash of light and hope that quickly disappeared. Days later, his grandmother would decide she could not care for him on her own, repeating a pattern of abandonment that would haunt him forever.
Michael’s father, a lifelong criminal and sociopath, suddenly entered his life. He took Michael away without warning and plunged him into even more chaos using the boy to pillage stores, buy drugs, and engage in sexual escapades and prostitution.
For over two years they traveled from coast to coast, running wild, until they arrived at a sleepy coastal town. Michael’s father liked the location and spoke of finding work and settling down. One bright morning, Michael and his father walked along the sandy beach lined with overweight tourists and high-rise condos. And for once, his father seemed happy.
I can only imagine what took place next.
“Wait here on this bench a bit son and enjoy the sites. I have a job interview that might really turn things around for you and me. I’ll be back as soon as it’s over. Wish me luck!”
Hours passed while Michael, all of 9 years old, sat on that bench. The sun settled and rose, and Michael remained on the bench as if it were a raft drifting along a vast expanse of ocean. It took two days before someone realized he was lost and alone.
Michael never told me what he thought or felt when his father abandoned him forever on that park bench. He had little time to process what happened as he was quickly launched into a dysfunctional and underfunded system with good intentions but poor outcomes. He went through a series of abusive foster homes and sub-par treatment. Not surprisingly, Michael began acting out. He started demonstrating “odd” behavior according to various reports, the kind that brought him to me, by now a 14-year old frightened and disconnected child.
He seemed unreachable.
Until one day, when Michael met in my office after he’d been involved in a fighting incident. He looked up at me with sunken wet eyes, paused to wipe away tears, and asked in a soft, broken voice that would melt the most hardened of souls…
“Will you help me Mr. David?”
I didn’t know if I could. I didn’t even know if I had the desire.
SUCCESS BEGETS SUCCESS
You must come to know that the work you strive for matters. Michael’s story touches on the idea that our success connects to a greater story.
What if those of us in the helping professions felt empowered by opportunity as opposed to feeling defeated by broken systems? Perhaps Michael would have fared better.
It’s an annoying cliché to call for change, but I’m doing it anyway. I’m doing it for Michael.
Change, as you very well know, is hard. And in this particular instance, there are significant obstacles to overcome. We are taught early on to follow the rules and find that place of comfort. We exist in a work culture so monolithic that entertaining a new business solution or considering a career path even slightly “outside the box” is met with suspicion. People are taught to stay within a tiny range of possibilities, and when this occurs, everyone suffers. I was on this very path when Michael asked for my help. I found it nearly impossible to identify solutions for him. Even worse, I was beaten down, deflated, and numb to the idea of helping people altogether.
It’s essential that you turn to your interests without compromise, and find that place of possibility.
When you strive for personal success in a way that is genuine, you touch the lives of those who feel themselves drifting.
You break the cycle and step off the bench.
David P. Diana is a counselor, author, and a director for a behavioral healthcare organization. He writes a weekly blog on sales and marketing for counselors (www.davidpdiana.com)