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Strength in Survival

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Let me set the scene: I was a case manager in an old steel town in Canada, working with the toughest of the tough cases. My clients were the most vulnerable of women who had experienced trauma, had addictions and mental illnesses, were involved in sex work, and who were unhoused. All of those who were mothers had had their parenting rights revoked.

I was a young case manager, newly recruited for a trial housing-first program. Our goal was to get chronically unhoused women into housing--a tall order when so many parts of their lives were also in need of attention.

I used to describe the conundrum to others in this way:

Imagine our lives are made up of 100 bricks. Each brick represents a part of wellness: a home, good physical health, mental health supports, money for food, grief we have grieved, positive relationships, a sense of freedom, education, access to services, etc. To be fully functioning in healthy ways, our bricks need to be stacked up in a tall tower. Now, a housing-first model will address the housing brick. Well, picture a person's bricks scattered all over the floor (remember--a healthy person's bricks are stacked neatly). As a case manager for this program, my only success, which would be reflected the data used to fund the program, was to pick up the housing brick, and put it down as the start of the tower.

As I'm sure you can guess, it doesn't do much good to keep someone housed when all of their others bricks are still scattered. A history of eviction doesn't go away because someone is housed. Mental illness doesn't suddenly get addressed because someone is housed. Addiction doesn't vanish because someone is housed. A person doesn't suddenly become food secure, or find purpose, or ceased to be abused, or heal relationships because they are housed. Housing is certainly a positive, but it is not a magic wand.

I felt immensely responsible for the wellbeing of my clients and always felt overworked and like I was bruised from slamming into constant metaphorical roadblocks. I wanted to give them the fastest solution to getting their bricks stacked in a neat tower, but it was an uphill battle for many reasons.

I remember one night, it was pushing the end of my shift, close to 8pm, when I received a call from a client. She was not doing particularly well and was likely in for a night of worry and drug use, and probably time with a boyfriend who only came around when she had money. He had been using her and her apartment for his own benefit.

I chatted briefly with my supervisor and suggested that I should work overtime to ensure that she would be ok and make the best choices she could.

My supervisor said, "You are not giving her enough credit. She survived before she ever knew you, and she will continue to survive. She is a survivor."

This was a major teachable moment for me. I had been told that my clients were vulnerable, and I had mostly only seen them through that lens. I was forgetting their strengths. I was only seeing what I thought was best for them and forgetting their autonomy and own wisdom.

Ever since that moment, I remind myself that everyone has strengths. Everyone is capable. Everyone has wisdom.

If you have been surviving, how can you shift your lens and see your life story as one of gifts and strengths?

What can you be grateful for?

How have you become wise in your own life?

What can you build on?

Where do you want to go from here?

How can you strengths and gifts help you flourish?

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