Continued from Tuesday…
But what were the options in that moment? I couldn’t very well snatch the offer of fifty bucks away, I’m sorry, but I can tell you’re not into this even though you said yes, and in order to preserve your dignity I’m going to make your choices for you? Run out and hope she’d go permanently under the radar so QC could never reach her? I struck a deal with myself, do the interview but pay close attention for signs of discomfort and remind, in such a situation, of the respondent’s ability to skip questions or stop the interview at any time. It never felt like a convenient time to tell the respondent that if they answered fewer than sixty percent of the questions they didn’t get the cash. That wasn’t exactly in the consent form, but that was the expectation.
I dove in, starting at the beginning, questions I knew almost by heart at this point, what services have you been offered by DSHS? What services are you utilizing? And on into questions about ages and special needs of children in the home? What about the children not in the home? What disorders did they have?
She sat on the bed, fixing me with an intent stare that communicated in no uncertain terms, “I resent you for taking me through this.” Laptop to the side, she faced me with her arms tightly crossed, wearing a low-cut satiny camisole over tight, acid-washed jeans. At intervals she would grab her long, limp hair and wind it on top of her head, taking it right back down and shaking it out. I noticed a faded tattoo on each shoulder, lines blurred, a caricature of an angel, a devil, barely discernible in the low light of the room. We went on this way, her eyes burning into my face, mouth numbly answering as I stared into the screen, typing in her responses, looking up to ask a new question, expression neutral. Let’s get this over with as soon as possible, was about all we had in common, the tension palpable.
At one point she received a call, which she took outside, leaving me alone in the room for a long five minutes. Uncomfortable is a good way to describe being left alone in the living space of a stranger whose story you’re collecting, no possible reason for your presence beyond that pretense. She returned with a fiftyish suit-wearing balding man in glasses. He didn’t say a word as she crossed the room to her suitcase. I averted my eyes, trying to allow them the maximum amount of privacy the small room could support. A silent exchange was occurring, and I tried to sense whether I should wait outside. Before I could make a decision, the man brushed past me to the door, looking back for a long moment of significant eye contact with the respondent, then disappearing. She grabbed her computer, absorbing herself in the screen, as I continued my questions.
My stomach began to clench as we neared the mental health assessment portion, a long section devoted to probing questions about the respondent’s mental health history. Not only did it feel grossly inappropriate to be asking these questions in the context of the study (even as a certified masters-level counselor), I knew the test to be invalid. In the beta version of the survey the mental health section had been comprised of an accepted, statistically validated psychological assessment. That section alone was averaging close to two hours in mock interviews, so instead of searching for a briefer test, it was pared down by people above my pay grade to the basics, rendering it useless and unreliable. So I would be administering a now-bunk psychological test designed for clinical use, in a clinical setting, by trained clinicians, from a hotel room on the side of the freeway, to a desperate, reluctant respondent. Fuck.
And of course the mental health assessment had to be done on paper, items circled and written in on ten-page packet, laptop serving as a writing surface. It wasn’t at all awkward to switch from electronic to paper in a house where it might not be microbiologically sound to rest anything but shoe soles on the floor, in an apartment with zero available surfaces to set something for a moment, a precarious balancing act of computer, bag, file, papers right there on your lap, determined not to take up any space, disturb anything, touch anything. I got myself together and began to explain the next portion, about how I would be asking detailed questions about her mental health history.
I paused, making direct eye contact before beginning the first set of questions, All About Mood Disorders. The tension between us broke in one swift motion as she went from boring holes into my skull to face crumpled into a towel, shoulders heaving with sobs.
Whoa. Shit. Fuck. This was EXACTLY why I hadn’t wanted to do this interview, this section. I was clearly, obviously, tableau-of-sorrow-and-stress unfolding before me, hurting someone.
I stopped the interview. Sat quietly as she wept. What, exactly, was I going to do here? How, exactly, was I going to create a sense of safety for her? I had caused this situation, and if I had one scrap of humanity, I was going to have to fix it. Now. We had to connect on a person-to-person level for this emotionally dangerous situation to defuse. I was going to have to find a way, drop the neutral-respectful-to-the-point-of-blankness attitude. Without getting involved. “May I ask what’s happening? Was it one of the questions? Because you don’t have to answer anything you don’t want to,” I ventured quietly.
She took her face from the towel, breathing shakily, tears rolling down her face, considering me. Hands trembling, she fumbled on the nightstand for a cigarette, a lighter. I threw a hail-mary pass, no other ideas presenting themselves. “Do you think I could have a cigarette? That sounds really good right now,” I asked. Her eyes widened and her crying ceased.
“Oh honey, you smoke?” she asked, a note of hope for me yet, relief that I had a habit, in her voice.
“Yeah, I just left mine in the car.” I lied, though truth be told I was a pack-a-weekend smoker during that time period. She handed me a cigarette, even scooching closer on the bed to offer me her lighter, placing an ashtray on the comforter between us. She leaped up and opened the window, the shades. Let there be light. We dragged and exhaled in a relieved silence for a couple of minutes, two women together in a hotel room, and then she began to talk.
She told me about her three kids, one of whom was in her twenties, a sixteen year-old son, a nineteen year-old daughter. At one point or another in all three of their lives she’d “fucked up” somehow, constantly in and out of the system, whether it be CPS, jail, rehab. She just couldn’t seem to get it together to be the kind of mother she wanted to be. She loved her kids to no end, but it wasn’t enough to keep her home with them, taking care of them. What was wrong with her? She would get these impulses and end up doing something to get herself in trouble, have another child taken away. Why couldn’t she stay in control of herself? Get control of herself? The girls were grown up now at least, had a chance to make their own lives, without her screwing everything up. The oldest wouldn’t speak to her, and she understood. She accepted it. But her son, her little boy (and here tears sprang up again), well he wasn’t hers anymore. The court had terminated her parental rights and she had no right to him. She still saw him sometimes, talked to him on the phone. But her life was just her now. And did I see these tattoos? They summed up her life perfectly. The part of her that’s an angel, a good mother, a good person. And the devil, telling her to do things…fucked up things. It’s gotten so she’s not sure which one she is anymore, to the point she worries she might be crazy. We smoked and I listened to her talk until I sensed she trusted me enough for me to ask, “would you like to try the survey again?”
She did, and we finished the interview in another twenty minutes. I packed up as she went over to the window, gazing out at the hazy summer day. I thanked her for allowing me to do the interview, accepting the extra cigarette she offered for the road. As I handed her the envelope containing two twenties and a ten, I saw her face ease, the worried lines soften. We parted without sentiment, and I walked back to my car, put it in gear and pulled away.