Harriet Tubman: A Counselor’s Heroine

[This particular blog is a part of a lecture to be given to my Drug and Alcohol Counseling class 0n 4/21/10. I print it here because I want to celebrate Harriet Tubman as part of a new group of people I consider heroes.]

How many of you know who Harriet Tubman is?  My friend Melanie came to speak to the class on Monday and I wanted to respond to the class by telling you about Harriet Tubman because she has a lot to say to this class about what we’re all doing here and what Melanie tried to bring to us last class.

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in 1810. When her master died in 1849 (when she was 39 years old), she escaped to freedom in the North and spent  some portion of her life bringing slaves to freedom. She died a free woman less than 100 years ago, in 1913, at the age of 103.  In 1875, the beginnings of the Women’s Right to Vote movement started. 7 years after Harriet died, women gained the right to vote in this country. It was a changed world. Parts of it changed because of her.

Harriet Tubman is most noted for doing what you are learning to do in this class. Harriet Tubman took people from physical and emotional slavery to freedom from that slavery. She took people from the Southernmost parts of this country through the areas affected by slavery to the border of slave and free states, and into freedom.  But she didn’t stop there. With the help of the Underground Railroad — a collection of people who worked with her, she got people all the way to Canada (where, by the way, women could vote before they could here —  in 1918).

In today’s class, you will be learning how to do Treatment Planning. You will be learning how to get a person in the physical and emotional slavery that is addiction to that new world of freedom that is the beginning of recovery, then on to a whole new life of freedom that they could not even imagine.

This week at work, I saw a woman who has — by far — the worst life I have ever heard about.  There are  all types of abuse — physical, emotional, and sexual, plus neglect, and six or seven other major issues involved in her case. As I said, this is by far the worst case of human tragedy I have ever seen in one life. Oh, and yes, there was an addiction.  At some point in her life, she went through withdrawals from Crystal Meth (aka “Crank”) by putting a sock in her mouth for 3 days so she wouldn’t bite her tongue off or choke on it while she was sick and in agony.  From that point on, she was free of the slavery of daily use of Crank.  Later, she would become free of the incredibly abusive relationships she had.  When I met her, she had cancer.   I was able to draw her a map of the new world of peace and happiness she didn’t even believe existed.  Some 18 months or so later, she is cancer free, happy in her daily life, in a wonderful relationship that allows her the freedom to be who she is, and she came to the office to tell me I had something to do with it.  She believes that I did for her what Harriet Tubman did with the Underground Railroad.  The honor of being part of her story enriches my life every day. That is what you, too,  will experience, if you continue on the path that you have chosen by being in this class.

Many cultures have people like Harriet Tubman.  Judeo-Christian tradition has Moses, Buddhist tradition has the Boddhisattva, military culture has stories of returning for injured or even dead colleagues as a matter of honor.  And we, as Americans, have Harriet Tubman.   In each case, people who didn’t have to became remembered for caring about people that nobody cared about and brought them to a new life of freedom.  Because I read biographies as a kid, I know probably more about Harriet than anyone else.

First, you should know that That “didn’t have to part” is important.  Harriet, by the time she got up North had earned her  freedom. Nothing said she had to go back.  Nobody would have  blamed her if she just enjoyed her own freedom.  She earned it, she didn’t have to share it.  If you have a good life, and especially if you earned it, no one should blame you if you don’t go back and “share the wealth”. I know too many people who do, and it’s “pigs before swine”:  addicts they know think that they deserve the wealth that someone else earned and/or rightfully deserves and they take it.  You don’t have to do that.

While I’m at it, let me remind you that nobody will blame you if you don’t care for the heroin addict who has ruined their family’s life or the alcoholic who lives on skid row. As before, the addicts put themselves in this position with their choices. Also, people will understand if you don’t think anything about those people because they don’t either. Slaves to addiction are thought of about as much as Black slaves were the first time.  So — point 1: You don’t have to do this work, any more than Harriet Tubman did. But if you choose to, there are some things you should know: Because you don’t have to, and because nobody cares if you don’t do this work, the fact that you choose to makes you honorable in my eyes.  Anybody who does anything they don’t have to, but does it out of compassion or calling or what-have-you, is honorable in my book.

After that, you should know that some of the people you bring to freedom will want to go back into slavery, just as they did with Harriet.  Some of them will not be able to cope with the anxiety of being free and feel lost in the new state of freedom, just as slaves did after the Civil War. But some of them will make it and remember you as the person that took them on the journey from being a slave and thinking they were worthless to being free and knowing they have value.

Some of you will only work in the deep place of slavery — in detoxes and early recovery. Some of you will  work on that edge of freedom known as early recovery. Some of you will put those finishing touches on the New World that is recovery and see people become fully themselves. In each case, people will remember you. More to the point, in each case, you will remember you.  Not a day goes by where I don’t think my life has some meaning because of the work I do — the work I’m teaching you to do.

Harriet’s journey began by knowing who she was meeting and where to find them.  When slaves sang “Go Down Moses” even though they couldn’t read the Biblical stories, she knew (as they did), that they were singing about her. She knew how to find them.  When they sang “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, they knew to look for the Big Dipper and find the North Star that was a constant guide to freedom.

If you live in Southern California where it’s always sunny and your friend talks about “snow” or “running a ski jump”, you recognize a cocaine addict or a dealer.  When I talk about going to the bus station in Springfield 50 times and never getting on the bus, you now know something’s funny at the bus station — in this case, buying drugs of one sort or another. When Melanie talked last class about working with doctors, politicians, and police who were addicts, she knows how to spot them as well — when so many others wouldn’t even know they were there, including me. That’s why I brought her here.  She goes into slavery and knows where to find the slaves.  To denigrate what she knows or what she does is to be just like everybody else.  I expect you to be better than that. The fact is, to take people on that journey to freedom that means so much, you and I have to know where to look and what songs the slaves sing. The more you know, the more slaves you will be able to free in this life, just as Harriet Tubman did in hers.

And don’t ever doubt for a moment that the world will be different because you did. Your clients will have children that grow up in safety. Your clients’ children will avoid lives in gangs. Your clients’ children will be less likely to be sexually abused or neglected or in DCF custody. Your clients’ families won’t be poor because Mom or Dad spent their hard-earned money on Crack or booze.  Remember in our first lecture, I talked about the effects of drugs on families?  For every client you get into recovery — even for a short time — you break up that pattern and you give them hope and knowledge that things can be different.  But it’s up to you to know what the map to freedom looks like.  And it’s up to you to know which part of the journey you’re best at, which part you understand best. And if there are slaves that you can’t find, it doesn’t mean they’re not slaves just as much. It’s your job to find them. The more you find, the more freedom the world sees. And if you can find them, but you can only take them on some part of the journey, then you need to pass them on to someone who knows the rest of the map.

It’s ok that you do. Any freedom is some freedom and some hope for your client. The more you know about the whole map, the better off you’ll be.   So today, we’re going to talk about what that map looks like. Most of the world won’t care if you don’t learn it. But you’ll care if you do.


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