***All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals mentioned, and my ass from HIPPA’s unforgiving hellfire***
My job isn’t like most jobs. No, really…it’s not. Trust me. It’s way better. Often times when I sit with my friends on the weekends to catch up, the conversation will turn, as conversations often do, to the subject of work. “You won’t believe what a douche my boss is!” or “I had to sit in a meeting for two hours with no bathroom breaks yesterday!” or even “This family of weird-o’s left me a $5 on a 90 dollar check!” All reasonable complaints, all typical grievances for a 20-something to have. And then we’ll get to me and I’ll nonchalantly add “I caught a client eating the soggy food out of the sink trap.” Or “I had to chase an individual through the parking lot. I ended up tackling him in the mulch just before he got to the busy street. He spit in my mouth.” And there will be a silence, a chuckle or two, and then the inevitable “you’re shitting me, right?”
And the thing is, no, I’m not. I’ve been working as a direct care provider for adults with developmental disabilities for years now, and I won’t mince words here: it’s a labor of love. People often tell me “it takes a special kind of person to do what you do.” And they’re so right. It takes a very rare breed of human. One who hates large paychecks and has a wardrobe comprised solely of clothes they don’t mind ending up covered in bodily fluids, finger paint, glitter, rips and holes, and that unidentifiable crusty shit that I like to call the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of my profession. But I have to hand it to this field; it teaches you a lot of skills that will become applicable later in life. There are the obvious: becoming okay with a human unflinchingly shitting on the floor in front of you, CPR and basic first aid, how to diffuse a violent situation. But some lessons aren’t as apparent right away. Here are a few I’ve picked up in the past years.
- Find Your Cheeseburger
On Fridays we have Wendy’s. Each and every week, my individuals bring in money from their group homes and each and every week without fail I go to the Wendy’s next door and order, from memory, three Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers, one baked potato, no cheese, a small chili, four small fries, four value diet cokes, 5 value vanilla frosties, and one root beer, no ice. One week I was served with a very sobering dose of “real shit” when I found myself far too busy to make it out, and instead presented the guys with lunch that I had scraped together from our emergency reserve of spaghetti-o’s, ramen noodles, bread and peanut butter, etc. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an elderly woman with down syndrome throw a ‘hell no.’ glance at you, but lemme tell you, it causes physical pain. The conversation that ensued went kinda like this:
Here you go, lady, PB&J, no crusts.
But…it’s Wendy’s today.
I know, but I didn’t get a chance to go over there because we had such a busy morning! Wasn’t that such a fun activity!? I bet you can’t wait to take home your cool mask that you ma-
It. Is Wendy’s. Today.
I know that, girlie, but sometimes we have to-
(losing her previous decorum)
I don’t have a-
I’m sorry, but I-
This continued for several minutes, during which I was extremely tempted to wordlessly exit the building and put in an application at the TJ Maxx down the street. But then it occurred to me: the vast majority of this population has no vice to speak of. Most of them will never drink, will never throw in for an eighth with their roommate, will never wake up next to some guy who was wearing a scally cap at the party the night before and have to sneak out the door at 6AM. The one and only fix they’ll get is their ill advised cheese burger and value fry cut into small pieces by the shaking, over-caffeinated hands of their exhausted staff. And that’s okay. The same thing goes for all of us. We as people don’t have to conform to the expectations of what we’re supposed to find “fun.” We don’t have to party, we don’t have to fuck a lot, we don’t have to smoke a pack a day. But we do have to have our “cheeseburger.” That one little thing we get to do that makes us feel good, but also bad, and most importantly, treated.
- Dust off your Partner’s Crumbs
Maria is one of my very favorite individuals (but please understand that my “favorite” varies by the hour, sometimes the minute.) She is happy-go-lucky, extremely overweight, unflinchingly loving, VERY hygienically flippant, and above all, head-over-heels in love. With Steven. Steven is a good deal younger than Maria, early 20’s, deeply autistic, compulsively clean, and with a penchant for existing in an amalgamation of worlds from various science fiction franchises he’s completely memorized. Maria and Steven are the Lucy and Desi of our agency. They come as a package deal.
It’s pretty clear to most third parties that Maria is the do-er in the relationship, diligently making him necklaces and cards, sharing her wedding plans with staff, waiting in the cafeteria to say hello to him when he comes up to clean each table three times after everyone’s had lunch. And it would seem to that same third party that Steven is completely indifferent to these clear advances. He rarely makes eye contact with her, speaks in clipped, one-word sentences, and will often out-and-out run away from her when she’s on the prowl.
However, at this year’s Halloween dance, as I wove through the throngs of dancing clients, joining in, singing, reminding that we dance with our hands on our partner’s waist, and not their breasts, I noticed Maria and Steven. They were off to the side locked in a tasteful slow-dance (I believe to The Monster Mash) appearing not to notice anyone else in the busy room. I edged closer to be within earshot, and heard Steven say to Maria very sternly “There are crumbs on your shirt.” My heart dropped, as I expected Steven’s compulsive germophobia to kick in, ending with an emotionally volatile woman scorned and crying in an XXL pumpkin costume. However, much to my surprise, he reached over and dusted them off, adding, “You should be careful.” I couldn’t stop myself from grinning at this extremely pure example of a person putting aside hang-ups and personal chagrin in order to help facilitate their partner being their best self. So touched was I that I immediately slunk over to them like I was their drug dealer and palmed them each an extra piece of sugar free spooky chocolate, then asked Maria to dance with me so that Steven could go and wash the top layer of skin off his hands in the men’s room.
- High Five A Lot. Like, All the Time
There is no great symbolism surrounding this one. A high five is the most immediate and pragmatic reward you can give someone. You never don’t have your hand on you, and sometimes words are inadequate or unavailable. Plus lets be real, saying “I’m so proud of you for accomplishing that” is a bit much in most situations. A high five is concise, it’s social, and it says “yes, I will make brief physical contact with you, my friend, in recognition of that cool thing you just did. Good for you.” Seriously, next time your friend/parent/significant other does something neat, high five them genuinely. There’s no possible way they won’t smile.
I think you get the idea here, so I’ll wrap it up with a few honorable mentions:
- It’s okay to sing a Chingy song during Karaoke group, as long you firmly and loudly state that you want the version with no n-words
- A non-swear can still be a swear if you say it with the right vehemence
- Removing your tampon and throwing it at your staff makes a big statement, but will not help you reach your endgame.
- Always help out during cooking group, because that’s how you get free snacks.