Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tales of Employment Woe- Part IV

After the completion of my masters degree in counseling, I knew that there would come a time when I would try to apply what I had learned to help other human beings. I had a hunch that I lacked the proper empathy to make a life's work at it, but I wanted to find out for sure. So I started combing the classified ads for opportunities. I found a company located in the South Side that managed the residential programs of adults with mental disabilities. They offered me an entry level position in therapeutic staff support. My first clients were an unlikely pair of non-verbal, developmentally disabled roommates (here referred to as T. and M.).

T. was a bobble-headed caucasian who carried around a perpetual goofy grin, and slobbered over everything. He was difficult not to like. However when he decided to return affection, he had the bad habit of seizing a handful of his target's hair and refusing to let go. He had tremendous upper body strength, and you had to stay still until you could somehow manage to cajole him to release you. In the end you had a headful of spit-logged hair. M. was a middle-aged man who shambled around like a primate. If you looked him straight in the eye, he would get threatened and start whooping like a howler monkey. I had difficulty processing M. His most nasty habit was politefully called "digging", and consisted of him inserting a finger into his rectum and prying out fecal matter. He also absolutely refused to wipe himself after a bowel movement. As staff support, you were expected to stand next to him in the bathroom while he did his business. Then he'd stand up, put his hands on the sink, give you a big smile, and wait for you to wipe his ass. I suspected that this was his way of torturing his keepers. I found out after about a day and a half that he was perfectly capable of cleaning himself. He was pissed. I couldn't figure out why no one had ever discovered his trick. They all maintained that he just wasn't able to do it. I decided quickly that this job situation didn't quite meet my desires. I might have stayed on longer had I not found out that both T. and M. suffered from infectious hepatitis. The only way I found out about this relevant fact was because I asked why there were biohazard stickers on all the wastebaskets. I thought about T.'s slobber and M.'s digging, and I came to the conclusion it just wasn't worth $7 an hour.

Because I threatened to make a ruckus about the house manager's "little secrets", the company assented to giving me an alternative position. Now I was the employment specialist for R., a 19 year-old autistic male with epilepsy, ADHD, mild schizophrenia, and Oppositional Defiance Disorder. That last diagnosis meant that R. was quite contrary. The previous employee in my new position had quit because R. had kicked her in the chest when she went to rouse him for his job. R. didn't like getting out of bed. He also didn't like showering, cooking for himself, working, brushing his teeth, cooperating with his roommates, listening to staff, or suggestions. That was inconvenient since the company's philosophy revolved around the concept of "least restrictive environment". This meant that you could never, under any circumstances, make a client do something- regardless of whether or not it was actually good for him. You couldn't give orders or even take away privileges as a consequence for misbehavior. You had to use every bit of creative psychology at your disposal. But the reality was that when R. didn't want to do something, he simply didn't do it. And his refusal was compounded by almost constant pressure from management to find R. a job. His last work experience (for another employee's moonlighting cleaning business) ended when he was discovered masturbating in the lobby in a downtown office building. He had very little shame.

In the few months I worked with R., the closest I got to getting him to participate in something useful was having him volunteer at a homeless shelter. R. was obsessed with the homeless, mostly because he harbored a deep desire to run away from his residence. He constantly talked of wanting to live under a bridge. So instead of serving up meals as he was expected to, he just walked around interrogating the homeless folks about their lifestyle. I tried to keep an eye out for him as I peeled carrots in the kitchen. When I decided he was going to help, he demanded that I bring him home immediately. Usually he just wanted to be left alone to play videogames. He detested his roommate K., who was a foul-mouthed boy with Down's Syndrome. K. was notorious for abruptly punching staff in the face with no warning or reason. He loved Michael Jackson, and had a whole stack of shrink-wrapped copies of "Thriller". Every week or so he would go completely ape-shit and tear up his favorite tape. Then he would cry and sulk until he got a replacement. I loved him when he sang the title track and tried to do the "moonwalk" while interrupting his own song with strings of profanity. It was a pretty nice set-up for me when R. refused to leave his room during my entire shift. That happened quite often. After awhile my supervisor got frustrated with my lack of progress with R., and transferred me yet again.

I now found myself working with J., a drastically overweight middle-aged bear of a man. He loved bowling and the Three Stooges, and for a few weeks all I had to do was take him to the lanes on Tuesdays. The rest of the time I watched cable and cut up jackpots with the rest of the staff. I was the only white staff member at the house, and saw more BET than I ever could have anticipated. It was fun kicking back for awhile, as J. was another client who usually refused to come out of his room. But I still had to bear up under the provocations of D. (J.'s housemate). D. loved to pick at everyone and was constantly inviting people to touch his "wiener". He would come on all friendly-like, feigning interest in your life until he discovered that you had a girlfriend or a wife. He stored that information away until he got mad, and then he'd tell you what he would like to do to your girl. And he knew that you couldn't punch him, so he pulled out his bluest material. Nobody ever suggested that D. find a job.

But eventually J. decided that he'd like to get a job at the local Wendy's. I was not pleased with this decision, but resolved to repect it. Unfortunately the store manager was very compassionate, and she agreed to let J. work the grill. I thought I was off the hook when J. refused to get dressed for work his first day. After ignoring my knocks at the bedroom door until Moe was done fucking up Curly, he abruptly burst out of the room, clad only in a pair of holey tighty-whities that he never changed (depsite unopened stacks of brand new undergarmets in his bureau). When I suggested that he might like to skip work, he silently put on his best outfit and got into the car. Resigned, I drove him to his new life in the fast food industry. As I expected, he quickly tired of the repetitive task of flipping burgers. When I delivered crucial information about "Juniors" and "grease", he shouted back at me- "You look like grease!!!!" When he had enough of yelling in my face, he went in the back to sit quietly and chain smoke cigarettes. There I was, masters degree in hand, finishing out J.'s shift at the grill. I related the situation as best I could to both the store manager and my own supervisor, but the former was too permissive and the latter was unsympathetic. I couldn't get Wendy's to sack J., and I wasn't allowed to help him quit. So I worked two more shifts at the grill and then turned in my own resignation from the company. I decided that the human services industry could do just fine without my help.

I followed up with a short stint as a neighborhood crew manager for the 2000 US census, and then I went back to school for a brand new professional certificate. I fortified myself with the many pleasant memories of my life in the workforce, excelled in my return to the life of a student, and soon found a place in the world of public service. But that's another story for another time...

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