Journals of an Insane Genius - January 2001


"So are you certain you'll be comfortable working with the developmentally disabled in a community setting?" It was 1984 and I had anticipated hearing this question during the interview. As a twenty-year-old male entering a profession with a shortage of males, I had been sent to interview at the "behavior" house. They wanted to find out if I was prepared. I was about to give my rehearsed, confident response when the van pulled up and Lizzie entered, bursting through the door with a gleeful hoot and running head first into the wall directly across from the door. Fortunately she was wearing a crash helmet. I had been warned about Lizzie. She was nearly six feet tall and a bundle of coiled muscle. Seeing someone new, she ran right over and stood hovering over me and making questioning noises to the interviewer. Suddenly I didn't feel quite so rehearsed and confident.

I got the job and was sent for two weeks of training at the Oak Hill Institution. Along with fourteen other new hires, I learned about CPR, dispensing psychotropic medications, the importance of adhering to the psychologist's program, documentation, and most importantly, self defense. They guaranteed that I would have a 100% chance of being attacked at some point while working in the behavior house. They should have given me some lottery numbers while they were at it because they were shockingly accurate with their prediction. The main thrust of the class was to learn how to try to avoid the situation in the first place, and when that failed, how to use a state approved method of restraint without injuring the resident or yourself so that the company would not get sued.

I have to admit that the training did come in handy on several occasions. I was also pleased to learn that some of my coworkers had paid attention as well. I was driving the van from the workshop to the group home with eight residents and one assistant. This was in Michigan, the road was snow covered and the highway was down to two lanes with shop traffic merging. Lizzie chose that time to reach forward, grab a handful of my hair, and slam my head against the headrest, pinning it there. Since my coworker hadn't yet noticed I encouragingly observed, "All right, we're all gonna die." This got her attention and after thirty painful, stress-filled seconds with no place to pull over she managed to get Lizzie to let go.

Of course the physical safety wasn't too hard to be aware of. At no time in the training did they mention how to deal with someone throwing a fit in public, other than to attempt to guide the resident back to the van as discreetly as possible. Bobby was my biggest challenge here.

Bobby was a young man in his mid twenties. Blind and paraplegic since birth, his mind was incredibly sharp. Unfortunately he had become "institutionalized". In the institution when one patient feels he or she needs to get the attention of the staff, one sure way to get it is to reach over and clobber the person next to you. Sure it's negative attention, but it's still attention. Under these circumstances it was all too easy to park Bobby in front of the television and lock the brakes on his wheelchair. He couldn't see it, but he could listen and he was out of the way. By the time I started working at the group home Bobby had already improved tremendously from the change in living conditions. Spending his life in front of the television, he had memorized a lot of the questions and answers from game shows. I could take him at "Jeopardy" most of the time, but he was lord and master of "Name That Tune". He knew the names to songs I didn't even know had names. I thought "Turkey in the Straw" was just cartoon background music.

Every so often the residents would get to go on various cultural outings. Bobby had been looking forward to Harry Chapin's brother, Tom, coming to Flint to sing some of his deceased brother's hits for a Valentine's Day charity benefit. For weeks Bobby had excitedly talked of nothing but hearing "Cat's in the Cradle". I was selected to accompany him and Jim, another resident who rarely spoke and had a history of reaching out and hugging people. Whiting Auditorium is part of Flint's "Cultural Center". Everyone was dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. We were led way up to a handicap-accessible balcony.

Bobby was in heaven. The acoustics were flawless and Tom was in great form. About thirty minutes into the show Tom finished a song and began to talk to the crowd. He hadn't performed "Cat's in the Cradle" yet. He thanked everyone for attending and talked about the charity we were supporting. Then he mentioned that you should hold on to your ticket stub because a little later they would be giving away a door prize. As soon as he said it I knew that Bobby, programmed by years of exposure to television, would not be able to resist. He yelled out, "An exciting world a fabulous prizes can be yours!" His voice resonated clearly throughout the entire auditorium. There was nervous laughter and all I could think was, "Do *not* give him positive feedback or he won't be able to stop." Too late, I could see the mischievous grin spreading across his face. Just as I was starting to pull the wheelchair out of there Tom Chapin, feeling he needed to cover the awkwardness by saying something, said, "Well, it looks like that has someone pretty excited." Oh no! Now Bobby feels that Tom is engaging him in conversation. This can't get any worse. I'm trying to hustle Bobby out the door, reproachfully whispering to him that he knew we wouldn't be able to stay if he did that. Just then an usher entered the balcony to put a stop to the commotion. Jim immediately embraced him like he was having a reunion with a long lost relative. The guy looked panicked so I turned away from Bobby to calmly get Jim to release this guy and wait in the hall. Knowing this was his last chance, Bobby went for broke, "Ladies and gentlemen may I have your attention! There's a Blue Light Special on Herpes at K-Mart!"

We never did hear Tom's reply to that.


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