By: Desiree, Youth Worker
One of the first things that you notice about Terrance is his hair, which is long and chocolate brown. It flows freely down his back and often in front of his face. It took a long while before I even had a chance to see his eyes. When Terrance reflected on his first few weeks in the Crisis Program, he said that was intentional. “They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, so I look down,” he said to me once at lunch, while he fiddled with his fork.
Terrance is a deeply inquisitive and introspective young man. It is not uncommon to see him staring intently out into the distance. “What are you doing?” I’d often say. “Just thinking,” he would respond with a smile. And he would. He would sit and ruminate for hours, mentally unpacking his day, his week, his world.
Terrance will be the first to tell you that he had a tumultuous upbringing that resulted in him growing up fast and becoming the primary caregiver in his family. This is a role that he falls into naturally and one that he is proud to step into at a moment’s notice, for both family and friends. But fulfilling this role has not come without a cost to Terrance.
The first time I sat and had a conversation with him, he was timid, shy, and reserved, but it was clear to me that he was yearning for connection in an unfamiliar place. He spoke about feeling lost and out of place with no idea of how to engage with his peers or staff.
“I was always told growing up to be tough…
I never really had people telling me that it’s okay to cry…”
I remember telling him that it takes time to settle in and that this discomfort was a natural response to being in an unfamiliar situation. Terrance felt an extreme sense of displacement. He was living without his family for the first time and in a homeless shelter in a brand-new city. All of Terrance’s youth workers worked closely with him for weeks to help build trust and a strong relationship with him.
We let him know that we were there to support him and talk through things but on his own time and without any expectations. On one challenging day, Terrance seemed to be really struggling to process all the overwhelming feelings he was experiencing. I sat in front of him in an office and watched as he furrowed his brow, scrunching up his nose in protest to the tears that began to fall silently down his cheek. Terrance kept his head bowed and screwed his eyes shut in an effort to stop his tears from freely flowing.
“It’s okay to need to cry,” I said. Although this may seem like a given, I find that so often the young men that I work with struggle to embrace their vulnerability and sometimes just verbalizing that they are in a safe space can make all the difference. He sat quietly and considered my comment. “I was always told growing up to be tough,” he responded. “I never really had people telling me that it’s okay to cry.”
We sat and spoke together about masculinity, emotion, and the power of vulnerability. I often encounter similar conversations with the young men that I work with. They often have a diverse range of backgrounds, childhoods, and experiences with processing emotions but the one thing that many of them have in common is an implicit understanding that to show one’s emotions is to show weakness. This notion is not often verbalized but seems to be somehow engrained into the psyche of so many young men.
Terrance was open to continuing his process of self-discovery through counselling. A few weeks into the counselling process, he announced that he had discovered creativity as a tool for reflection. He became engrossed with any creative outlet that he could get his hands on, whether it be music, painting, reading, or writing.
The arts became his primary form of self-expression and the more that he continued to express himself to staff and his newfound friends, the more that he settled both in his physical surroundings and in himself. Terrance began to make friends with his co-residents. He joined in on every activity, he laughed and made jokes but above all else, he created.
“I have something I’d like to share with you,” he said to me one evening during our nightly check-in. He pulled out a well-worn book of published poetry from his bag, opened it, and began to read aloud. He spoke about feeling inspired about what this poet had to say. Moments later he pulled another, smaller notebook from his bag and told me that he had written two of his own poems in response.
“Can I read them to you?” he asked. “Absolutely!”, I replied.
you’re hiding so much
holding it in
do not expose
do not show
those dark days
but for now
the storm has ended
rest well child
I felt myself become emotional as I listened to him read the words aloud and with purpose. Before I could begin to respond, he flipped the page and told me that he had written a second poem in response to the last. He took a deep breath and began to recite:
do you know what i love
i bear witness
to pain incarnate
it is sublime
As a youth worker, one of my primary functions is to act as a support for our youth and often one of the best ways for me to do that is to help them unpack their own relationship with vulnerability. Sometimes that’s as simple as giving someone permission to cry.