I have worked at the same job for over 8 years now and interviewing drug users and sellers has taught me a lot about life and about myself. A few people have asked me how I talk to these people and hear their sad stories day in and day out without getting down myself. Of course, there are days when a person's story stays with me or when I make a special connection with someone and wish I could do more to help her or him. But for the most part, I feel pretty good about giving these individuals time and space to talk and to compensate them for sharing their valuable information with us. It's also made me that much more grateful for my amazing family and for all I've been given in this world. When you come from a world of privilege, whether you realize your privilege or not, it is easy to judge others who seem like they simply need to get it together and change their lives.
Not that I'm above judging these people myself, even with all of my experience working with and talking with homeless individuals, sex workers, addicts and hustlers who are more often than not nice folks who are just trying to make ends meet in our ridiculously expensive city. And that's why I feel guilty sometimes. Not guilty about what I have, but guilty about judging. If I'm having a bad day, I get pissed off that a person lied to try to get into our study. Scammers suck! But when I step back and get the full view, I understand that hustling is their lifestyle and that's how they know to survive. See, I can handle a sad story but I'm at a loss when someone gets angry and confrontational. Don't yell at me when I tell you that you don't qualify-- I don't make the rules here and I'm bound to the integrity of our research. Still, I'd be angry too if I saw an opportunity to make some money and was told no. Yet again.
Through this job, I'm reminded that I hate confrontation. I want to cry like a child afterward. I'm a sponge that soaks up negative energy and it stays with me all day. That's the bad part of being empathetic. Fortunately, that kind of confrontation doesn't happen often. The other side of empathy is having understanding and putting your own life into perspective. Not being able to afford a fancy dinner out no longer seems quite so stressful. It's hard enough to live in the Bay Area if you consider yourself middle class. But it sure is worth it.