Long before I had my own children I worked as a counselor for people with developmental disabilities. We spent weekends in group activities and I supervised trips to the movies, library and store. Some of my clients struggled with mental illness and tended to be a tad paranoid.
One Saturday night I drove the crew to the movies and parked in the ramp on 50th street in Edina. We walked to the theater and got in the ticket line, then we hit a snag.
Greg, a client with obsessive-compulsive disorder, was having a bad day and ruminating about body snatchers. He tapped a woman in front of us and – out of the blue – said, “They take over your brain and you don’t even know it.” She gave Greg a worried look and stepped away.
“That isn’t appropriate,” I said to Greg.
“She deserves to know,” he replied.
“I appreciate that, but probably not right here in the ticket lobby.”
“Should we step outside?”
This was not going well. We took a few steps forward in line and made it to the ticket booth.
“What movie are you seeing?” The worker asked.
“None of your f—ing business!” Greg snapped back.
“You need to tell him to get your ticket,” I said.
My voice sounded extremely reasonable to me. Greg, however, responded by dropping to the floor, limbs outstretched like a starfish. He lay motionless and I put my hand on his back to make sure he was breathing.
“I don’t like people in my business,” Greg said. It wasn’t the response I was looking for, but I was glad to see some sign of life.
“Got it,” I said. “We still need to tell him if you want to see the movie.”
Greg mumbled inaudibly since his face was pressed against the carpet. Carol, another client, yelled over my shoulder, “Two for Sound of Music!”
“We are actually going to That Darn Cat, but thank you.” Carol was helpful even when the information was inaccurate. I like that in a person.
Greg’s eyes snapped open and he grabbed Carol’s ankle. She screamed and the crowd behind us parted down the middle. Several of them whispered, and one pointed to the manager. I waved them away, saying cheerfully, “Nothing to worry about!”
You’d think with this background I’d be equally skilled when I had my own children, especially when my disabled son went through a difficult period (“difficult period” meaning the time I wondered if he was possibly a sociopath). I tried to minimize the behavior problems as one-off embarrassments and referred to the stories collectively as, “That time Porter melted down.”
His sister, Tyler, corrected me, “One of the times he melted down.”
The behavior wasn’t Porter’s fault. He took Ritalin to treat his hyperactivity and experienced “paradoxical agitation.” The drug wound him up, and the Valium he took to steady the Ritalin only added to the effect.
We stuck with this “therapeutic” intervention for a few months until we felt so crazy that it was almost time for another kind of intervention. But we didn’t quit the drugs without a fight. The time we went to Discovery Zone to climb on the indoor jungle gym and burn off energy comes to mind as a misguided attempt.
Porter was four and blasted into the play area, and I knew what to do. We had seen a “behavioral psychologist” who recommended ignoring unwanted behavior. I tried this advice when Porter saw a party and ran over to grab a piece of pizza from the birthday boy’s hands.
The psychologist’s advice seemed great – until I realized that I’m not great at ignoring screaming, and I’m terrible at tuning out the stares of other parents. These are the ones who never carry their children through the produce aisle in a basket hold. I considered dumping him and running. or asking whose child that was.
Instead, I scooped up Porter, one arm and one leg, and carried him around the kids in the birthday hats and toward the parking lot. Walking past one 5-year-old boy in the group, I heard him ask, “Can I have an airplane ride when he’s done?”
In these moments, I’d try to explain to the other parents, then they would stop talking to me – sometimes forever.
Being a bit action oriented, my MO was to fix things or at least try since technically I was the adult. This worked until there were things I couldn’t control, which I eventually realized was everything. But it wasn’t hopeless.
Life started to look up when we lowered the medications. Porter calmed down, and along the way my perspective shifted. I saw that trying to control things usually made them worse.
This led me to conclude that doing something can often be the worst response, and that sometimes the biggest gift we can give another person is to be there with them while they struggle. I’d like to say I learned this on my own, but it was Porter and his friends that taught me this lesson.
Like the example I saw last week in Parables, Porter’s special church.
The service started, then stopped abruptly. Kevin’s mother stood up and said she had an announcement. Every week she gave us updates as Kevin tried to get a job in the community:
He applied for work, but felt too scared.
He was offered a job, but didn’t go.
Start, stop. Start, stop.
Kevin stood beside her in a Ford baseball cap, eyes down, grinning. “As you know he’s been trying to begin a job at the grocery store, but the training has been really tough. Four hours in a class with strangers, and so far it made him too anxious.”
Kevin nodded, head even further down, if that was possible. His mom turned to him and he said, “Uh-huh.” He played with his fingers as if tapping a desk, though there was no desk. He shifted from foot to foot.
“Nothing I did helped,” said his mom. “I gave him advice and tips and tried to get him to go. It didn’t work. But this guy saved the day.”
She pointed to John, our usher, the one that comes to the church service wearing his grocery nametag and his work uniform. John, who was cuddling the golden retriever therapy dog on the altar.
“John went with Kevin to the class and sat with him until it was done. Kevin made it!”
John walked closer and they high-fived each other. Then they stood there with their arms around each other.
John smiled and looked at us. He patted Kevin’s back, and said something we all need to hear at times:
“You got this buddy.”
To read more from Sarah Bridges, please buy her memoir “A Bad Reaction” (Skyhorse Publishing) available on Amazon.com. For more “Free Range Lives” messages, click and subscribe to the blog. We appreciate your support and your “shares” as we create a community of support and hope.