I’ve ventured out from the safe and lovely refuge I created in the space between illness and health. There is a tentativeness about these forays, so different from the way I used to just burst audaciously out my door and into the city. Always open to meeting any person or experience that I might encounter in my path, today I am wary. I don’t wander nearly as far, staying close to home or going to Central Park. I feel so very sad that I no longer feel safe in this city that has been my home for 25 years. She was always the place I ran to from the suburbs when I needed to find inspiration and escape what I experienced as the stultifying boredom of suburban life. My first trip in all by myself was when I was 15.

While excited to move into our vintage 1912 house and the many projects ahead that will keep me engaged and creative, I feel a little guilty about leaving my city when she has fallen to her knees. I have worked here for 40 years, lived here for more than half of that, lived in three of her boroughs, and survived then thrived during other moments in the past when she was taken down by events outside of her control.  

The horrifying increase in shootings, robberies, and rapes that are happening now is reminiscent of the time I arrived to take my first job as a social worker in the early 1980s when New York was experiencing the worst levels of crime in its history. The night before my first day there was a brutal gang fight killing several people in the neighborhood where I was to report that first morning for work.  Perhaps it was because of the work or the belief of the young we are immune from harm, I don’t remember being scared. Whether it was being passionately committed or having a death wish, I tracked down missing girls with my staff, venturing into Times Square or down to the Bowery at all times of the day and night. 

Being a social worker meant that pragmatically life had to go on. Inspired by the resilience and bravery of the young women and girls I was fortunate to meet, it felt self-indulgent to give in to fear. Unlike me, they had no suburban refuge to return to at night until they came to our program. I learned to create pockets of safety and care amidst the worst of conditions. And so we survived and even thrived during the crack epidemic, the AIDS epidemic, and economic recessions. Later still a social worker, but now a professor, we rose again after the death blow of 9/11. During the last 6 months, now like then, there is the constant sound of sirens.

Today I am no longer a practicing social worker, though I am still one in my bones and perhaps that is why I feel I am abandoning my city in her time of need by taking care of myself. I’m not even a professor of social work anymore. I am just me, no longer defined or held accountable by my profession and all the heavy burdens it has always had to take on and carry. Yet it is hard to put them down. 

In my life now, there is a craving for the routine, quiet predictability of suburban life. Unlike the young social worker I was, I’m realistic about and aware of all the ways I’m vulnerable and perhaps even now, this time, in need of protection and care myself. I remind myself I will only be an hour away and it is certain I will continue to work in the city, at least for the next few years.  I remind myself of the literally hundreds of social workers I have taught over the last 20 years who are doing the work now. Those who will help the city get through this time, too. 

So I’m coming full circle back to the suburbs where I was born. I’m certain like that 15-year-old I will get the impulse to hop on the train just because I want a tea, the company of a friend, and the inspiration only found in a quaint cafe on a leafy street in the West Village where writers used to gather. But in the meantime, I need to just let myself enjoy having a new house!

Have you ever experienced a duty of care that gets in the way of you putting your needs first? How did you manage it?