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When 15-year-old Ali found out I was going to be her new key worker she said I had one chance

What happened next has shaped my work in every way.

Photo by JuanKrloss Fleitas from Pexels.

By Sam Dixon, Team Leader, We Are With You at YZUP

When 15-year-old Ali found out I was going to be her new key worker she said I had one chance. You never know how someone will react when you first meet them. What I got was a very wary, angry, young woman. Thankfully, she agreed to meet me again, so I must have done okay. What happened next shaped my career and my work in every way.

Ali was on the edge of a world of antisocial behaviour and crime. Excluded from mainstream school because of her challenging behaviour, she was struggling with being home-educated and away from her peers. A part-time job helped her make other friends, but they were older and introduced her to party drugs. By the time she returned to school, her drug taking had increased and was more about managing her feelings than having fun. The young person I met was unable to stay still. She didn’t feel like she fitted in anywhere and couldn’t tell anyone how she felt.

I wasn’t the first professional Ali had been told would help. I was fairly new to this work and all my training centred on showing people unconditional acceptance and support. I wondered where that had been for Ali up until now. She needed someone on her side, someone to challenge her, someone to encourage that potential that was so clear to me. I attended meetings, I asked other professionals if they could see what I could see. I fought for this young woman’s voice to be heard and a lot of the time my own too.

At first, I was fearful of challenging Ali too much. I knew our relationship was fragile because of the professionals she’d encountered before. But I made it very clear I would not be let down by her mistakes. By having clear boundaries and challenging her behaviour rather than who she is, I was able to be that critical friend she needed.

Now don’t get me wrong, she got angry with me A LOT, but after some time reflecting she would always come back. In these times, which could last for days, I would worry that I had gone too far. At times Ali wouldn’t talk to me, but would still let me drive her to appointments. These were hard as I would be desperate to fix it, but instead we would sit in silence. I somehow knew that by just doing what I’d said I would do and being there, even though she was angry with me, I was sending her a strong message.

Ali had been through a lot. She’d tried to meet everyone’s expectations and when she didn't people in her life had told her she'd disappointed them. She took these failures hard and eventually turned this on herself. She ended up unwell, self-harming, and not wanting to live. I knew she needed residential care and getting her there was the most challenging part of my work.

It wasn’t something I did alone. Together with my manager and an art psychotherapist who was working with Ali, we gently worked to help her understand why we were asking her to go, what it would mean, and what it would be like. Ali had many questions and I would spend time listening to her worries and finding ways to alleviate them. Although I was very worried about her safety and would have liked it to happen quickly, I knew this needed to be at Ali’s pace and she needed to know she was making the decision. She asked questions and talked it through, she looked at the good and the bad and took time to reflect. She would not be pushed and I didn’t want her to feel pressured because of our fears.

After some time, Ali said she’d go. I visited her every three weeks while she was there. I would take her pasties from her favourite shop. It got to the point where she would ask me to bring more pasties for the friends she was making. Travelling with 10 pasties in your car for two hours required a whole new level of will power for this Cornish girl.

There were many challenges for Ali while she was in treatment. No journey is linear. I supported her by phone and worked with the residential team to manage issues. They were amazing and listened to my knowledge and advice on the best ways to work with her and she ended up staying for nine months.

Ali asked me to be the one who picked her up when it was time to leave and what an honour that was. The young woman I saw that day, compared to the Ali I had dropped off nine months earlier, had a fire in her eyes. I always knew it was there but it was hidden, masked by bravado. The Ali who stood before me was ready to take on the world, wise beyond her years, brave and so full of love. She has inspired me to be better, to work harder, to show up for people who may not have anyone else. No matter how bad it is, change is possible and young people are overflowing with resilience and power. Sometimes they just need someone to help them unlock it and be willing to ride the roller coaster with them.

It’s for Ali and other young people like her that I get up in the morning and go to work.

These are tough times for everyone. Our services are open and we’re here to work alongside you during this difficult time. Visit our website for information and advice, to chat to a trained advisor or to find your local service.

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