It embarrasses me when I think about it now, but when I was thirteen my buddies and I thought it was hilarious to make fun of disabled people, or as we called them, “retards”. One time my friend Rocky even tried to convince a substitute teacher that he was deaf and another student was his translator. As I matured I realized that making fun of people who cannot help the state they’re in is wrong. I also realized that people fascinated me, and that most of all, people who are categorized as “abnormal” fascinated me. So, ironically, I started working with disabled kids, and beyond the enjoyment I got from helping them, I found that I was learning a lot about people. I later moved on to work with Alzheimer’s/long-term patients and the severely mentally ill. Throughout my work in mental health I believe I have been given a unique opportunity to improve my understanding and appreciation of the human condition.
Working with people with developmental disabilities (D.D.) made me more aware of the complexity of D.D. and the kindness shown by people who live with it. One of the first clients I worked with was “Tim”, a fifteen- year- old boy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, who had just been forcibly taken from his mother. I was disgusted when I learned that FAS is caused by a mother exposing her unborn child to alcohol, which causes literal holes in the portion of the brain that controls impulses and higher reasoning. As a result of his FAS, Tim had violent behavior problems that we had to work on together. After a few months Tim and I became pretty close. I remember the day he came home with a candy- filled basket he made in school. He said, “We’re supposed to give it to our parents,” then he gave it to me. In that short moment, I began to understand what it is like to have a child.
Working as a behavior tech with the severely mentally ill helped me to overcome a fear that many people have of the mentally ill and gave me an enjoyment of their humanity. “Ricky” was one of the only clients I was afraid of when I started at the clinic. He was a large paranoid schizophrenic who would pace the hall and talk to himself in different voices about cutting peoples heads off while simultaneously miming it and making sound effects. After observing and talking to Ricky for a couple weeks, I realized that he had no intention of hurting anyone, and that his frightening self-talk and behavior was only his way of coping with the part of himself that he hated, his mental disorder. Although most of the staff were afraid of Ricky, he and I became friends, and I learned that like everyone he really wanted friends, he just had difficulty making them. Soon after more staff grew to like Ricky and enjoy his strange intelligence and humor.
Although I was pretty insensitive when I was younger, I have been lucky enough to realize that there is a fascinating beauty in “abnormal” people. My experiences working with people like Tim and Ricky have aided me in this realization, and I hope that my belief that my work will lead to greater awareness and love will prove true for the rest of my life.
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