Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Crazy Faith: A Surprising Journey Part 1

You know the old Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. Well, I don't know that I'm cursed, but I'm certainly blessed with lots of excitement.

In the past few weeks, I've experienced amazing triumph, and right along with it has come terrible news. At times like these, I wonder if I should hold on tightly or thrust my hands into the air and just enjoy the ride. But as I think about it, this has been going on for two years now.

In October 2009, I wrote a post called Burning, that I reread today, just to see what I was going through, to remember how I felt in the beginning of this journey I'm about to tell you about. It describes what was going on from the inside, from someone going through it.

But first, let me set this up.

I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in December 2007 having just been hired for a job. I missed working with kids. I used to work with at risk youth in Santa Barbara, and really wanted to do something that would help kids again. So I took a job working with autistic children.

Unfortunately this entailed me moving away from a community I adored. Sometimes I wonder why I left. I had a good job (as an accounting assistant), with a great boss. I had a strong swing dance community with people I really loved, and friends who loved and supported me. And I belonged to a parish that was so wonderful and so fulfilling, I couldn't really imagine going to Church anywhere else.

In a way, looking back at it, that is exactly the kind of environment that can support a big move to a scary new big city. I felt completely loved, supported, and cherished. As it turns out, I would need that.

I began a job that taxed my reserves almost immediately. I was working long days, learning a lot of new things, and working with very challenging individuals. I've written about the autism industry before, and while I adored the children with whom I worked, I detested the industry. It can be abusive and counter-productive. But I'm a stubborn Celtic woman. I don't run from a challenge.

I probably should have.

Four months into my new job, I was injured while working with a child. He was a big kid, granted, and he was rather frustrated and angry. I was attempting a strategy that was supposed to calm him down. It wasn't working, and he injured my neck.

Now, I don't really blame the kid. He was in his own bad space, couldn't verbalize his frustration, couldn't even tell me what was wrong. I blame a company that thought it should send a newbie in to work with a kid who had so many challenges. It was my first warning that I was just a warm body to them, a name that filled up the schedule.

After a few months of physical therapy and some chiropractic work, I went back to working with autistic clients, with the caveat that I shouldn't work with kids who required a lot of physical play. Usually that meant I'd work with older children, which was fine.

In the meantime, the economy tanked. I mean, TANKED. I'd gotten a part-time job teaching sociology online and finished my training just in time for enrollment to drop. I had no courses to teach because students weren't signing up. But hey, I still had my job working with autistic kids, right? Then, in the beginning of 2009, that entire company received a 5% pay cut. This reduced my pay by $3/hour. Great. They also wanted to reduce overtime and other sorts of spending, so my hours were reduced as well. Even better.

In June 2009, I was at an elementary school graduation with a client with whom I'd worked for the last year. He was non-verbal, but very animated. He watched his best friend walk across the stage, and he began to cry. Since this young man couldn't talk, he spoke through an electronic communication device. Through that device, he eventually told me that he was sad because he would miss his best friend. He understood what was happening! I did my best to comfort him.

When I told my supervisor this, she dismissed it completely. She refused to acknowledge his awareness of what was happening that day. This was not new. All throughout the year, this sweet boy (well, sweet and mischievous) would push his own envelope, expanding way beyond what he had done before, enjoying activities everyone else thought he didn't enjoy, doing things people didn't think he could do. And all throughout the year, I tried to convince people that this was what he was doing. His case supervisor and director couldn't accept some of what he was showing me, and they considered me naive. It still breaks my heart.

(Of course, now there is a spokesperson for the autistic community, a young woman named Carly Fleishmann who behaved similarly to this young man, but then discovered that she could type, and once she began, she couldn't be stopped. Yet the autism industry relentlessly doubts this girl and her ability. Now she writes a blog, and tells the world how much she feels, hears, sees, and most importantly, understands. Thank you, Carly.)

Anyway, the school year ended, and I had a couple of weeks before the summer session began.

During that time, I was assigned to one of my old clients. He recently turned 6 years old, and had gotten taller. He was still adorable and still a handful. He remembered me, I suppose, which is wonderful. But on my first day back with him, as I was kneeling in the tiny apartment in which he lived, he became excited and jumped right on my back.


My doctor said to take a week off work (this was without pay) and rest a little. Then, I was basically told to suck it up.

Meanwhile, back in the office, I'd gotten my schedule for July and noticed I wasn't assigned any time with my school client (the one who cried at his friend's graduation). I asked the director if there was an error and she said:

"No. You're off his case."

Just like that. I was in total shock. I stared at this director, and then noticed another director watching this interchange. She had compassion in her eyes. Dumbfounded and griefstricken, I stumbled away from them and toward the front desk. Once there, the tears began to fall.

Memories of the last year with this boy flooded my mind: his coy little smiles, his temper tantrums, the joy on his face when I would spin him around, the smile of pride when we jumped rope together. And now, coldly, dispassionately, I was dismissed from his life and he from mine, without a second thought, without so much as a good-bye. It was indicative of how the industry worked. I was a commodity and nothing else. And when a more convenient (or less emphatic) commodity presented itself, I was cut off. But that didn't make it feel any better.

In another post, I wrote about this industry, if not about this particular event (that blog post was about another similar event). In following this business model, the industry undermines its efforts with autistic clients, who have a hard enough time forming relationships without the industry wiping out their existing ones.

But that's another rant.

As my heart ached, my back and neck felt worse and worse. Each day I went to work, I ended up in more and more pain. I started taking ibuprofen almost daily. I had no energy to do anything but work and collapse in a heap at the end of the day. I was weary and frustrated.

Finally, the day before my birthday in 2009, I was saying my daily prayers, and it all just boiled up inside of me. I railed at God for bringing me to this place that contained so much pain for me. I hated my job and knew that I deserved so much more. And then finally, knowing God had a better idea for my career than this, I shouted at Him:

"Just show me where to go and how to get there, and I'll GO!!!"

Note to self: NEVER say this to God, unless you really mean it.

Tune in next time when I tell you about God's answer, and how I survived it.