The peculiar case of Mrs. H

I’m supposed to be providing clients with job readiness counseling; setting goals, working on resumes, getting motivated, performing mock interviews, helping with the seemingly impossible job search…etc. It’s challenging! And only occasionally gives way to malaise.

But when there are no clients? The challenge loses some its edge, shall we say. And when things get edge-less, I have time to write on the blog…Bleh. Oh, there are other, more work-related tasks that I could be getting myself to do. But most of them are pretty mundane.

I did have one client yesterday, ethical questions of whether to blog about clients aside. Mrs. H is a delusional old Chinese lady who seems to have taken a fancy to me. She drops in to see me at the Family Support Center with some regularity, but not really to avail herself of career counseling services. Rather, she’s just got no one else to talk to. In China she was an accupuncturist, apparently, but now she’s retired and living alone in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Her husband passed away some time ago…making her rounds at the FSC is just another way to keep busy.

She bears a small gift like fruit, candy, or a jar of some unidentifiable spice. Instant oatmeal, coconut powder, candied lotus root…you get the idea. At first I refuse to accept it and plead with her not to bring any more gifts. But I always give in eventually, which is her signal to start talking. I know that this gift-giving is a traditional measure of politeness and respect, which is commonplace for elderly Chinese folk. I also know that her Mandarin pronunciation is quite clear and standard, which is exceedingly rare for elderly Chinese folk. So I know that part of her is not only genteel, but also uncommonly intelligent.

And yet when she starts talking, she rambles incoherently in a kind of obsessive, paranoid stream of consciousness about all the ways in which she is put upon by the world. Her son doesn’t talk to her, the landlord is evil, the pollution clogs her lungs, etc. Sometimes she has a problem or task for me, as in the last few sessions which were devoted to ordering one of those really expensive ionic air filters. This was done to combat the urban dirt and dust, the ubiquitous dust which seeps into her room and frightens her.

Of course boundaries are an issue. When someone wants to monopolize your time with chatter, you can’t really just submit. When they want to take you out to lunch or set you up with eligibile Chinese girls, you must remind them of the invisible line. Always a weird feeling.

I want to refer this individual to therapy, but she’s unwilling to start. Besides, I’m not sure how much Western therapy would really help an elderly Chinese person. Her best bet for mental health would probably be to find ways to get out of the house and become more involved in the Chinese community, though this is easier said than done. She *is* working with some of my colleagues at Family Support to try to get a better housing situation; actually, she’s made incredible progress in that direction and has been shortlisted for Section 8 housing which is well nigh impossible to get. Maybe she’s got connections that I don’t know about?

It’s not as if Mrs. H and her problems make me throw up my hands in despair…it’s more like her case makes me realize that everybody has problems, not all of which are easily identifiable or curable in the analytical doctor/patient or counselor/client way. Just sitting and listening to her ramble, and occasionally performing random tasks, might be the most helpful role I can play.


3 Responses to “The peculiar case of Mrs. H”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    Hey T-

    Interesting to read about your work – I went on facebook to check up on ya and maybe write something on yur wall, but I had nothing special to say. It is really hard to find the best way to help people, I go thru that with my bro a lot, and I always like to get out and talk to people outside of my ridiculous little industry – people always just have such an amazing range of lives and problems, and while you can know that intellectually, in a day to day way it’s very hard to remember there are people who do not live in NY or LA, are not 20-something or parent aged, and maybe not even American. So it’s good to be reminded. And I hope your Chinese lady gets some kind of help to keep her sane, in the mean time you can enjoy the mystery spices 😉

    take care t,

  2. Nina Says:

    We should chat some time about lonely older ladies chatting with us for hours on end. There is a janitor at UMass who got to know me as someone that stayed in the office late, and then proceeded to come chat with me for a long time whenever we were in the building at the same time. Then she started admonishing me about the level of mess in my office, and telling me to tell the people I share the office with (three people in their thirties) to do a better job cleaning up, and somewhere along the line she passed the boundary, and I don’t think I did anything apart from being courteous and listening.

    This semester I have made a point of leaving the office around 6 pm each evening to avoid the inevitable conversation. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s helped (even if I sometimes feel like I’m in a suspense movie as soon as I hear someone unlocking offices around the hallway…)


  3. Counseling the absent and hopeless? « Brooklyn! Sup? Says:

    […] Counseling the absent and hopeless? Being a good career counselor is tricky: You want to be a goal-oriented, action-focused, “active listener”. You want to be savvy and professional, but also sympathetic and understanding. You need to be culturally competent and universally approachable (as clients range from Arabic speaking housewives who want to become nurses to Puerto Rican kids spitting hip hop lingo and trying desperately to stay in GED class) yet conscious of boundaries. (see ‘The peculiar case of Mrs. H’) […]

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