Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Back and forth
There are days when moving forward is just too daunting.
When I was in college I worked with developmentally disabled teenagers. I coordinated an after-school program for kids who still lived at home with their parents for a non-profit residency organization that had never attempted such an endeavor before.
In essence, we were the bastard step-children of an organization that wanted us to succeed but then forgot we were there.
By this I mean that we were minimally trained and given little clinical information about the folks we served. When we contacted "the office" for guidance, we often heard silence on the line followed by "who did you say you worked for?"
We were not given clear program operational guidelines, nor were informed of any special needs our charges may have had that weren't self evident. And we were inexperienced enough not to have understood how helpful such information could be, so we didn't seek it our for ourselves.
In a nutshell, we were winging it.
There were times when I felt I was in over my head.
When a girl in our care started inexplicably walking backwards, I was at a loss. We tried behavioral remedies; prattling on about safety and being able to watch where she was going. We cajoled with empty threats about the inappropriate nature of her direction. Nothing I tried could get her to walk forward. She complained about pain, and said that it just felt better to walk backward.
It wasn't until weeks later that we learned she'd been abruptly taken off an anti-psychotic medication, and one of the side effects was likely that she'd had pain in the muscles she used to walk forward. The muscles she used to walk backward were not affected.
Had I known this from the start, perhaps I would have handled it, and her, differently. More compassionately. Less annoyed at the time it took us to get from point A to point B and back again.
But sometimes the NOT knowing could be a saving grace.
One young man, unbeknownst to us, had been thrown out of every program he'd ever attended. Our only clue to this was his mother showing up every day and asking us "what he'd done wrong."
At first I was stunned by her frazzled question. He was a good kid. Or so I thought. When he started acting out, testing if you will, I decided lying to her was the best course of action, at least until I figured out what was going on. "He's doing really well. Not a problem at all."
But his testing increased. His behavior became more unpredictable and it seemed clear he wanted me, in particular, to hate him.
One day I snapped. I told him, in as harsh words as I could muster, that he could be a bastard all he wanted. That was a choice he could surely make. He could hurl as many insults as he liked my way, but that he wasn't going anywhere. He was stuck. With me. Until he grew up and moved along to the next person he could torment.
From that moment on he was a different kid: A helpful kid in earnest, and truly a joy. It was immediately apparent to me that had I known his history and prejudged him on it the outcome might have been different.
I've been thinking of this past life of mine recently. Perhaps its of result of the anxiety of being tossed again into unfamiliar waters. With Annabel going to school, me joining committees and the prospect of dealing with new people, my shoulders have been attached to my ears for weeks. It's one thing after another, and it seems as if I'll never have enough information to make comfortable decisions.
I suppose I just needed to remind myself - yet again - that mistakes are part of life; and that sometimes knowing something only gets you so far.