The day began like any other Friday; however, the world was entrenched in the COVID-19 pandemic, people had already endured months of isolation, and the mental health impact was taking hold. With the world collapsing around me, knowing that today was my weekly “social distancing” coffee date with one of my closest friends, brought light to an otherwise arduous day.
This time we decided to shake things up a bit, as we typically meet in the park blocks near Portland State, by going to a coffee shop on the South Waterfront that he likes. He said that the area lends itself perfectly for taking in the essence of the city while we walk along, sip our coffee, and shared what life had presented us with that past week.
As my car pulled up alongside the curb, I immediately saw my friend’s beautiful smile, one that fills me with joy even on the most devastating of days. As he approached my car to help me get my dog out, I collected my things and we began walking towards the coffee shop. From a not so distant place a man could be heard shouting in the background; we looked at each other, and shrugged, as it was not uncommon for us to have such an experience during our coffee dates. As we approached the shop, it became obvious to us that the coffee shop was closed, so we would need to change our plans.
As I looked towards my friend, over his shoulder I could see where the once distant yelling had originated; a man, probably in his 30’s was walking down the middle of the street screaming that he needed help and for someone to get him some milk. As he gained ground, I could see that he was stumbling around with his eyes closed, looking disheveled and quite distraught.
Psychologically, our brains are wired to create a story about what we don’t understand, and mine struggled to do so. This situation felt different than the ones he and I typically encounter on our coffee dates, so I watched curiously for a minute as I attempted to determine if this man was a safe person for me to help. I looked over at my friend, told him that I knew it was going to cut into our coffee time, but something about this situation was different, and I had to help him.
My friend seemed to know that was going to be the case before I even finished my sentence, as he took my dog’s leash from me, and reminded me to be careful as I approached the man. Immediately, I noticed that he was carrying a battery-powered drill and charger in one of his hands, which I found curious and knew could be dangerous, intentionally, or not.
When I was about 8 feet away, I loudly asked him if he needed help. After he confirmed that was the case, I asked him if he minded handing me the drill so that I could put it on the curb. I gently took it from him as I led him towards the sidewalk, giving him verbal directions along the way, knowing that touching a person to guide them could be triggering for some. I guided him to a sitting position, and he immediately began yelling again, not in an angry way; he was terrified.
I crouched down to his level, and after asking him what his name was, I told Nathan that I was there to help him, but he could make it much easier if he was calmer and talked to me in a lower voice. He didn’t protest. I told him my name and proceeded to ask him if he minded taking some deep breaths with me, which we did; this helped to calm him down almost immediately. A calm person is a much more rational person, so I knew it was essential to help him get to a place where his mental capacity enabled him to tell me what had happened.
Nathan proceeded to tell me that he had been sprayed in the face with mace by someone and that his girlfriend was on a white and blue sailboat down by the water. He told me that he didn’t care about himself but was worried because he knew that if the sailboat left, his girlfriend was going to be sold in the sex trade; he needed someone to go and save her. His subsequent question to me was if I was the police. I told him, no, and he replied that he wanted me to call them right then.
I dialed 911 on my cell phone and told the dispatcher where I was and that I needed the police to come because a man had been sprayed with mace and was especially concerned about his girlfriend that was on a sailboat docked nearby. I informed her that he had told me that if they left he knew she would be sold in the sex trade.
The dispatcher asked me approximately 10 questions about various things, and the more times I had to ask Nathan for the answer the more upset he got. At that point, I told the dispatcher that was enough questions. She annoyingly responded by telling me that the police needed more information so that they would know what they were coming to help for. I kindly told her that they had enough information and that I must now focus on helping Nathan.
After I got off the phone, many people came to ask me if I needed any help, which I found immensely interesting, as they had completely ignored Nathan as he was yelling for help earlier. Nevertheless, they were kind gestures. A man offered a plastic folder so that he could fan his eyes, probably because he was watching me give him all sorts of my things to try, none of which were successful. Then a younger woman came down and asked me if she could get me anything to help him. I asked if she had milk to rinse his eyes; she came back 5 minutes later with a gallon of milk and a cup.
My friend and the young woman stood 10 or so feet behind me to my left. The young woman told me that she and some other people had been watching from the balcony; she thought that I must be a nurse or something because it was obvious that I knew exactly what I was doing. I chuckled a little, told her that I was in school for psych and social work, and then thanked her for the compliment.
Additionally, the man that was working as a groundskeeper, who witnessed Nathan running towards the area, waited to see if the police wanted more information. Nathan had been chased up the hill by a man with a 3-4 ft long stick in his hand. Nathan never mentioned that to me, so I don’t believe he knew he was being chased after he had been sprayed with mace.
It wasn’t a minute later that the police finally arrived (took them 20 minutes) with the fire department closely behind. The policewoman approached, with her male partner following; she stood about 12 feet away as she asked questions. When I told her what Nathan said about his concern for his girlfriend’s safety, she low waved me off, which infuriated me. It appeared that it was not so much that I was talking, but more that what I had to say was irrelevant to the situation, in her opinion. Nathan reiterated what I said and told her that he wanted his girlfriend checked on first. I then asked the man that was working the grounds if he could tell her what he saw.
While all this was happening, a fireman approached with some water, and began to tell me that they don’t have much on the truck to help him, but then looked down and said that what I had was much better anyways. They never checked Nathan for any injuries or assessed him specifically.
After Nathan requested again that they check on his girlfriend, and did not receive a response from the police, he started to get very upset and began to yell. Immediately, the policewoman and the other officer started to yell, “Ma’am, Ma’am, Ma’am”, very loudly toward me. I raised my head, looked the female officer directly in the eyes, and said, “I am fine, I don’t feel scared, and I am a social worker!”. Boy did that feel good rolling off my tongue! In a soft voice I reminded Nathan that when he is calm it is easier for all of us to help him. That was all it took, a simple and compassionate reminder while treating him as a human rather than a burden.
Then, the strangest thing occurred; the fire department and police left at the same time saying nothing to anyone. My friend, the young woman, the groundskeeper, and I all just stared at one another in bewilderment; why would they leave and not say a word to us? The groundskeeper then noticed that the police car was still parked and that they had headed down towards the docks. It was discovered that only one of the two police cars had left the scene.
I continued to help Nathan until the police were back. This time they came up to us and began to talk with Nathan directly about the situation. Nathan stood up to talk to them and told the policeman that he liked him because he was giving him tips on the best way to manage the pain from the mace. I stood a couple of feet away watching the situation, because the policewoman had not made a positive impression on me, and I didn’t trust that she wanted what was in Nathan’s best interest.
Nathan was pleading with them to take him to talk to his girlfriend, and the policewoman responded that his girlfriend did not want to talk to him. After more pleading, she told him that his girlfriend told them she is no longer his girlfriend and that she had broken up with him. At that moment, my heart sank for Nathan just as quickly as my hatred for the policewoman grew. There was absolutely no reason that she had to confront him with that reality then; that topic could easily have been danced around in conversation to avoid escalation.
Not surprisingly, Nathan began screaming her name, took off his cross necklace and asked them to take it to her; when they refused he asked me. I kept the same soft voice and told him that I was sorry but that I couldn’t do that for him. He then began to run (as best as a person can with their eyes closed) towards the river and sailboat. The police followed and he didn’t get very far before they stopped him near some rose bushes. I felt helpless at that moment.
I looked over at my friend and told him that I didn’t want to interfere with the police but…which is where he interrupted me and said that sometimes it is not about whether we want to or not, but rather that we must. This is one of the reasons why I love him; he knows me so well that he can identify what is in my heart before I can find the words to tell him. I told him that I would stand and watch and that if things escalated in the slightest, I would then approach and advocate for Nathan.
I could see the policewoman watching me, watching her. She was not the one talking to Nathan, as each of them had one of his wrists in their hand and slowly walked him back to where I was standing. I had gathered all his things, cleaned up, and put mine off to the side while they walked him back.
When they arrived, Nathan was calm, and they were trying to figure out where they could take him. The policewoman addressed me, this time in a much more respectful fashion, asking where his things were. I showed her, told her I had no explanation for the drill, but he was not trying to hurt anyone with it, and then asked her if we could leave. I told Nathan that I hoped he felt better soon. My friend and I walked back towards the car, in total disbelief of what just occurred.
When we got back to the car, my friend told me that it was amazing to watch me work and de-escalate the situation so quickly. He said it all happened in less than a minute. He also said that it was clear to him that by me treating Nathan with dignity and kindness, he was able to calm down much quicker and trust that I was there to help him, not hurt him.
I responded by telling him that I didn’t even have to think about it; the way I responded to him felt completely natural and that what I had learned in school became a part of my words and actions instinctively. That was the moment that solidified my own belief that I am a social worker.
Yes, in a few weeks I will have a piece of paper to prove that I earned my BS in psychology and social work, but it’s not that piece of paper that truly makes a person a social worker. That requires us all, as social workers, to offer ourselves and our hearts to people who need it and want our help, without hesitation, and any thought of personal gain.