Spring is upon us, and everywhere there are reminders of a season of renewal. As I was enjoying a leisurely spring walk today, I remembered the story of a client I worked with many years ago when I was 24 years old, working in Edmonton as a career and employment counsellor for adults with physical disabilities. I’ll never forget the day I met this particular client. She gave me permission to tell her story, and for the sake of confidentiality, I’ll call her Lydia.
The journey for me began one ordinary afternoon. As I was sitting in my office, the receptionist buzzed my intercom and said simply, “Richard, your two o’clock is here.” Exactly as if nothing were out of the ordinary. But when I stepped out of my office and into the lobby to meet this woman, I immediately saw that she was covered in purple and black bruises, all over her face and arms and legs.
Lydia limped into my office and began to explain that her physical disability, which qualified her to use the free services of our non-profit organization, was broken bones in various parts of her body from being beaten so many times during her life. She was in her mid-40s and had lived most of her life as a so-called ‘sex trade worker’ in Winnipeg. Recently, she had been badly beaten and decided to leave Winnipeg and move to Edmonton to seek training for a new career and a new lifestyle, one that would keep her out of danger and introduce her to respectful people.
When I asked her about the fresh bruises that covered her so completely, she explained that she had only been able to afford the price of a bus ticket and the cheapest of inner-city accommodations in Edmonton, putting her back in contact with the same kind of people she had fled from in Winnipeg. She had looked for people who could—she hoped—protect her, but one of them took advantage of her instead, and she suffered yet another assault.
...I was immediately impressed with her sheer determination and her ability to present herself with dignity even in such an undignified state.
It had already been difficult enough for Lydia to take a chance in an unfamiliar city—and to try to break away from using street drugs—without this latest setback. She hadn’t contacted the police but had resolved instead to look for new accommodations as quickly as possible and to make an appointment with a career counsellor (me) to look for a new line of work. She told me all of this in a voice that conveyed neither sorrow nor pain—just matter-of-fact, almost as if it was happening to somebody else—but I was immediately impressed with her sheer determination and her ability to present herself with dignity even in such an undignified state.
Very early in our session, I remarked, “We’re not going to talk about your job search today, are we?” Not when her physical safety was so much at risk. She shook her head, and in the next hour, Lydia and I were mostly on the telephone together. In that hour I managed to connect her with a women’s shelter that agreed to take her, as well as free addiction counselling services and free personal counselling services.
Over the next several months, Lydia came to see me twice a week. We did not begin right away with her search for a new career, at least not in any detail. We began instead with a look at Lydia’s own sense of self, as it had evolved over the course of her lifetime. Some of this work she did with the other counsellor I connected her with—but the main focus of that other counselling, she said, was her substance use. So Lydia and I worked mostly on developing her self-image as a strong, competent, deserving person, with a clear appreciation of her deeply-held core values of respect, honesty, self-reliance, dignity, justice, kindness, and compassion.
Around that time I had been introduced to some ideas from narrative therapy, including some of the earliest papers written by the pre-eminent narrative therapist Michael White, and I was able to use some of his ideas in my work with Lydia. Over the next few months, I worked with Lydia to identify and reflect upon the many life skills she had developed over the course of her life, the positive self-knowledge she had developed, her ability to care for herself, her ability to grieve, and her ability to reclaim her dignity and sense of hope when people she’d trusted had betrayed or abandoned her instead.
Lydia and I worked mostly on developing her self-image as a strong, competent, deserving person, with a clear appreciation of her deeply-held core values of respect, honesty, self-reliance, dignity, justice, kindness, and compassion.
During our several months of work together she had one brief relapse into drug use, but she got through it pretty quickly and got back on track with a renewed determination to change her life once and for all. She returned to the women’s shelter in order to break away from the people she had met in inner-city Edmonton, who had supplied her with drugs instead of encouraging her to remain sober.
Around that time I began using an approach similar to Michael White’s ideas from narrative therapy, helping Lydia distinguish between a ”self-erasing lifestyle” (street life, drug use, being stripped of her dignity and treated with violence, and being discouraged from believing in herself) and a “self-embracing lifestyle” (surrounding herself with people who validated her and recognized her potential and making choices to honour her abilities, intelligence, determination, and self-worth).
We made use of her “passion for justice,” as we put it, to seek real justice in her own life. We talked about the grief and loss which had permeated her life since childhood, and Lydia was able to learn to articulate her identity as a smart, capable, resourceful, hardworking person who could—she began to realize—convince potential employers to give her a chance at a fresh start despite her lack of education or job history.
With the aid of computerized career-planning tools and a bit of research, we identified cafeteria management as an occupation she could get training in and pursue—even without a high school education or job history—with the aid of government funding for persons with disabilities. We secured that funding and continued to meet twice per week throughout her training program, keeping a sharp focus on her “passion for justice” and her determination to stay drug-free in a “self-embracing lifestyle.”
We also worked on her interviewing skills, and soon Lydia was hired as an assistant manager in a cafeteria in Edmonton, with a supervisor and co-workers who respected her and helped her with the steep learning curve she encountered in her new job.
Soon Lydia and I were meeting only every couple of weeks, and we used that time to celebrate her successes and to maintain the self-esteem, self-reliance, and self-vindication she had achieved.
She met a man who did treat her well, and over time, Lydia built a whole new life for herself: a fresh start as a career woman, with a safe home, a loving relationship, and good friends who valued her and protected her.
I will never forget Lydia. She is one of many people I have had the honour to meet and to get to know during the course of my highly-rewarding and meaningful career in the counselling field.
For me, Lydia’s story is one of Whole-Life Renewal. I still get tearful at times, thinking of her painful and heroic journey of self-reclamation and, indeed, Justice. For me, it is impossible not to be deeply moved by witnessing at close range a journey such as hers, step-by-step from violence to vindication.
Lydia hoped one day her story might inspire others, and I hope that by reading her story, others will find inspiration and courage to renew their lives also.
Thank you, Lydia!
Richard Routledge, MA, is an Arbour Therapist who cares deeply about recognizing the dignity in every person. He has over 30 years of counselling experience and meets with individuals, couples, and families. You can read more about him here.
*All images by Bianca Van Dijk. Follow on Instagram at @BiancaVanDijk