Monday, 1 August 2011

The Bravest People I Know

Two things you might want to know about me: One, I often have trouble sleeping, which is why my blog posts usually get published at odd times like one or two am. Two, I hate rats. I know that they’re smart and they don’t carry diseases anymore. But I don’t like them. They make me very uncomfortable.

Far, Far Too Many Rats

So I was surprised that I could get through a rerun of “Hoarders”, airing in the wee hours of the morning when there’s very little else on, that involved removing upwards of 2000 large rats from a house. Normally I’d have run screeching for the remote control as soon the first rat hit the screen. But the story was compelling enough to keep me watching.

The therapist working with the man who lived in the house with the rats said that he was using them, as hoarders apparently do, to avoid dealing with difficult emotions – in his case, unresolved grief from the death of someone close to him (his wife, I believe; I missed the first few minutes of the show). The rats had literally become like family to him. He could identify ones that were special to him, and was actually currently grieving the loss of one that he identified as the likely the mother of a great deal of them. When the therapist talked about the prospect of Animal Rescue taking the rats away, he cried openly.

But he’d made a commitment to have the rats removed, taken to temporary shelters, and then distributed to pet stores because he said he knew that they would have a better life that way. And while the process of seeing them put in containers and, eventually, driven away in a moving truck was obviously incredibly painful for him, he kept coming back to that conviction, even after the official “clean-up” was over and he was finding rats that they’d missed, that he removed himself.

At the end of it, as they showed him crying, watching the truck pull away, I thought, “How brave…to give up something you love that much, when you know it’s going to cause such heartache…because you know there’s a better life for it out there.”

I don’t like rats any more than I did…but I was really touched.

And I felt…feel…really privileged, because I know it’s not the first time I’ve seen bravery like this.

Intellectual Disabilities and the Bravest People I Know

I’ve worked with many youth (kids, really, although they’re legally adults or close to adults) who, though their intellectual disabilities give them much less capacity than I had at their age to truly understand complex situations, have had to make decisions that will affect their adult lives for years to come. Most of them had family support, but some of them didn’t; some of them had support from family friends or other adults, but a couple were really on their own. Together we went down their “Preparation for Adulthood” checklist: Are your funding applications done? Do you have a doctor? Where do you want to live?

I watched these teens take huge steps, terrified, sometimes only meeting with new support people on the strength of me or another trusted person saying, “This might be something that you want to try; if you don’t like him/her, you don’t have to continue.” And it’s truly amazing when these young people reach a point where they’ve decided, “Yes, I want to change this about my life, so I will try," despite intellectual disabilities and anxiety about trying something new.

These youth were the more “high-functioning” of the ones with intellectual disabilities that I've worked with but they still faced significant cognitive (and often social) challenges. I, an Honours Students for my whole time in high school, couldn’t have done that stuff for myself at 17 or 18. But some of these kids with intellectual disabilities never had a choice. Perhaps that’s why every time one of them met one of these challenges that gets thrown at them, my heart just sang.

I really do consider some of them to be some of the bravest people I know. (I haven't even gotten into the older adults with intellectual disabilitiess, the ones that were institutionalized practically from birth and endured injustices that I don't even want to imagine, only to be relocated to communities where they knew no one them once the institutions started to close. These ladies and gentleman also amaze me.)

It's About the People

So that’s why several of the teens with intellectual disabilities that I've worked with came to mind as I watched this man on “Hoarders” hold it together for most of the screen time at least while he lived through two of what were probably the most difficult days of his life. It takes an incredible amount of courage to voluntarily stare your worst fears in the face, and I can’t get over how many times I saw the kids with intellectual disabilities I worked with do it. It humbles me. It makes me glad I chose the work that I do. It’s why, no matter what job I do…I’ll never stop doing work with people with intellectual disabilities in some capacity, even if it's just volunteer.

I would just miss the people too much.

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