28 June, 2012

Good work in bad places

To do good work in bad places has been an ambition of mine for years. I didn't even remember how much I had written about this until I happened to be looking at old posts on this blog. Originally I think I wanted to work with kids with autism and be the only person who was being gentle and not yelling in their face.

I do remember this one woman at The School who I'm sure contributed bad stuff in lots of ways (in an ABA school it's not like an individual instructor can really work against a fucked up behavior plan), but she was just very gentle. When the kids got excited or took initiative in making jokes or plans, she smiled to herself. Other teachers and instructors would jump at the chance to correct a kid's movement or word choice and they would have almost a hateful look in their eyes. This woman would correct them when it would have gone against the rules of her job not to, but it was softer, more like the way a mother or big sister would tell any kid to settle down and use their inside voice.

I'm seriously glad she was there, although obviously, who knows how the kids feel about it.

To do good work in bad places is an ego trip. To do things the way someone wants or be there right away when someone wants help. Having a nurse pass on a message from a resident, that I am the only aide who actually brings ice in the morning. That guy (who I'm glad has gone somewhere else because he really hated it here) would sometimes just stop me and say, "Anyone ever tell you you do good work?"

At three AM in the bathroom one of my residents was telling me how much it frustrates her that she has to spend the day in the activity room when there's so much she wants to get done in her room. "I want to write letters, my flowers are dead and no one has emptied the vase and new flowers are coming tomorrow. I can't get anyone to empty the vase." I threw the flowers away and emptied the water into the toilet of another room. She said, "Thank you so much, I don't have any money but if I did I'd give it to you."

There is also this thing with women with dementia, maybe one part of it is actually caused by the dementia, one part niceness, two parts fear. Or I don't know what to call it. Maybe for some people it's mostly friendliness, but it makes me uneasy. "You're so pretty." "You're so pleasant." "You're so nice." "You have such a pretty face!" "You're a good angel." "Thank you so much." "I get such good help from you, I want to give you a hug." "You're WONDERFUL."

Jesus Christ, no I'm not. I like hugs but not these hugs. I don't think I am the only person who gets them from most of these women--that is the first scary thing--but even for the people who I genuinely please or impress with my gentleness or carefulness, the satisfaction at pleasing them starts to go away pretty fast because I don't want to work somewhere where someone thinks I am special for listening to them or trying not to hurt them when I move them.

I used to want to work somewhere like that.

I'm not the smartest, fastest, nicest, or strongest person in the world. But I am someone who has a certain value set when it comes to working as an aide. I'm pretty aware of the ways that staff people can fall into abusing and controlling "clients," and I have a strong feeling that I'd rather be played than take away more freedom than my residents have already lost. I want to serve. I want to treat people as individuals. I don't want to get mad at people just for not fitting into a schedule. I don't want to treat people like objects I am moving from one place or time to another.

When friends have tried to encourage me to work somewhere that isn't an institution and doesn't have shitty ethics, I remember a time at camp when the awful guy was complaining about a guy with a disability who in his opinion acted with too much authority and was afforded too much respect by the other campers. "Sure, he may seem normal," the awful guy said, "but his elevator does NOT go all the way to the top floor."

Every single other person in the room laughed. "That's such a funny way to say it!" one girl exclaimed. All the people in the room happened to be counselors who didn't have a family member with a disability or much experience with disabled people prior to starting this job. Still, they had always treated campers with respect. I was surprised to hear them laughing at a joke about someone's disability.

I started to think that a lot of staff are like chameleons. Their attitude toward disability and their values as a staff person--their idea of what they're trying to accomplish in their job, and their definition of right and wrong--can completely change just based on where they are. The culture of camp was generally positive and respectful about campers so the inexperienced staff people picked this up and imitated it, but they were completely willing to talk about a disabled person in a disrespectful way if they got into a conversation where that seemed like the normal thing to do.

I am not a chameleon. For one thing, I'm disabled. Also, for various reasons I'm not unaware of my capacity for evil, and learning about staff infection has pretty much been my life's work (at this early date). I end up thinking there's going to be staff in bad places and it's better me than a chameleon. I'm not going to be untouched, I'm definitely going to get shaken and pulled into a lot of fucked up things, but I will do less than they would do. Hopefully, if I take their space, they might end up working in a good place or not working as a staff person at all.

This is the way I try to think about it mathematically. I feel like I'm not necessarily going to contribute much to the world, but I can contribute this. I am the kind of person who's more likely to be able to do good work in bad places.

The math is not always working for me anymore.

I read this: Heart Failure: Diary of a Third Year Medical Student. It starts off with this guy promising to always be the person he is. He probably stays more the person he is than someone else would, but it's still pretty horrifying to read.

Blah blah blah Nietzsche blah blah blah I'm thirteen years old, but battle not with chameleons because the longer you gaze into institutions the less and less there is of the part of you that was naturally inclined to do good work.


  1. "Doing good work in bad places" is a really good way to put it.

    I had a friend (actually, the third member of a polyamorous triad I was in --- she and I were not lovers, but shared a lover) who acted in a similar capacity at a group home for adults with developmental disabilities. The extent to which she did manage to do good in that bad place is what makes me consider her a friend, as opposed to just my lover's other lover.

    That kind of person, in general, is someone whom I am going to respect enormously.

  2. "Blah blah blah Nietzsche blah blah blah ... [T]he longer you gaze into institutions the less and less there is of the part of you that was naturally inclined to do good work."

    LOL @ the Nietzsche bit. I was fourteen when I thought Nietzsche was THE MOST AWESOME THINKER EVER. So profound. (I also liked Kierkegaard at that age, so maybe that redeems me somewhat).

    But that conflict you describe, between the inclination to do good work and the institutions within which you have to do those good works rubbing off on you, is one I've suspected must be a hard one. Not sure I can presume to tell you anything I think would help keep you on the right side of that particular abyss, since it's not one I've ever tried to straddle. I do wish you luck, though, and am most definitely rooting for you.

    1. Thank you.

      It got too long to include this but a big issue for me is just being someone with a disability, I'm not open about having a disability or necessarily consciously read as having one, but my disability makes people judge my behavior differently and it also leads to all job situations feeling precarious, probably both because of how I feel about things because of my mental health but also I think because someone like me is probably more likely to be judged as not being competent or not knowing what I'm doing and is going to have fewer social connections at work to use to keep from getting in trouble.

      It is hard because I often feel like when I make decisions that I think my coworkers wouldn't approve of (like doing things when my residents ask instead of doing them on my schedule, which my coworkers think is more organized) I have to keep it a secret from them. I'm not the kind of person who can stand up to what everyone is doing and be secure in my job because it will just be seen as incompetence.

      I guess this might be how everyone feels, though. Probably everyone has their own reason they can't stand up for things.