I was thinking about that this morning on my way to work. For some reason, what came to mind was the year 1985 and one of the worst years of my life. I will spare the details of how I ended up in that place, but how I got out of it was a life lesson for me. Though I had worked with people with mental retardation, I had always been involved with high functioning individuals who lived in the community. Due to the circumstances, I ended up being assigned to a dormitory in a state school for people with mental retardation...severe, profound retardation. My first day walking onto the dorm, I was stunned.
I saw elderly men who could not swallow...blink their eyes...grasp anything placed in their hands. Most had feeding tubes. At bathtime, they were lifted onto a concrete slab that made me think of an autopsy table, and washed and rinsed. Most of them did not seem to react, but on occasion, some would cry like infants--my guess was it could not be too pleasant to be laid naked on a cold concrete slab in a big old cold room, lathered up and hosed off. Then they would be re-diapered and dressed, and placed back in bed, or the special reclining wheelchair, since they also could not sit erect and hold themselves up.
It was the opportunity to find something bigger than myself and my own issues. I grappled with it painfully. It was my first realization of why resources needed to be channeled toward a population of people who depended upon others for their very lives. It was also a painful introduction into the fact that our most vulnerable citizens are often cared for by those who have no education, little training, and in some cases, little or no compassion for the responsibility that entails. My job as the QMRP (Qualified Mental Retardation Professional) was to assess the needs of those individuals, and help develop intervention plans that would meet their needs, and help train staff to carry them out. I say "help" on all of it because unlike when I was a QMRP in a community residential and thus was the "boss" who had the authority to do that, in this setting, I was merely a "consultant." I had to depend on my communication and interaction skills to make things happen as I had no authority to enforce their happening.
One thing I brought to the job was my fierce insistence (this was pre-social worker days) that people had to be treated as people first--with dignity and respect, and valued for being people. The fact that the person had mental retardation was secondary, like having blonde hair is secondary to being a person. Respect for a man who was 83 years old, even if he was in a diaper and helpless, to me meant I called him by his surname with a title of Mr. in front of it.
The first time I completed a team meeting and wrote up the assessment, I inserted "Mr. Smith" in all the places it was necessary to refer to a client. The assessment was returned to me for my signature and in place of Mr. Smith, it had "Johnny." (These are made-up names; while in the 20 something years I dealt with clients, I may well have worked with a Johnny Smith, but I don't recall that, and certainly not in this case was that his name.)
I promptly crossed out all the references to "Johnny" and penciled in "Mr. Smith" and returned it with a note that said it was inappropriate to refer to a man who was 83 (or thereabouts--don't recall how old he was either) by his first name when neither I nor any one else on that team had a personal relationship with him that would entitle us to call him by his first name. The report came back the second time with Mr. Smith in all the blanks, and after that, when I sent them in with the client's surname and title, they were returned to me the way I had sent them in. The problem was that all the reports were pretty much "canned" and the computer utilized the first name to sort of fill in the blanks. Like a letter merge, they could type "Johnny" and it would just insert Johnny in all the blanks. In my opinion, they could just as easily type "Mr. Smith."
Some thought I was nit-picking. To me, it was part of a mission outside myself: to shift the thinking of others about how we should treat our clients, even if Mr. Smith never understood Mr. Smith any more than he understood Johnny.
Other things transpired, but over the years when I have found myself in one of those periods of re-evaluation--moratorium some might say--I eventually figure out what is the thing bigger than myself right now? How do I get outside of what I am feeling and move back into action? My friend used to say, "you can act yourself into believing, but you will never believe yourself into acting."