Tales of an unsung heroine: Finding the thanks in a thankless job
Few things are more frustrating than toiling in obscurity. Even those who are not trying to become famous appreciate recognition for a job well done. Some people have the fortune (I won’t say good or bad) to end up in a job that most people would consider thankless. The trick to coping with this type of employment is to find the thanks that may not be readily forthcoming.
For the last twenty years I have worked in various facets of human services, with people with psychiatric disabilities and intellectual disabilities. I started out in the psychiatric hospitals during college working as a Mental Health Technician (a fancy title for flunky). After getting my Masters degree I took a job in a day treatment program for people with psychiatric disabilities. The people who went there for group and individual counseling suffered from diagnoses ranging from Schizophrenia to Multiple Personality Disorder. That was some of the most amazing time in my career. I later moved to another state where I worked in a large day program for people with severe intellectual disabilities. The term “intellectual disability” is used to describe a set of conditions including mental retardation, Down syndrome, and Autism. These folks were not ready for employment. Instead they focused on activities of daily living, i.e. making beds, sorting items, brushing their teeth. Many of the people who went to the program needed assistance in the bathroom; some wore diapers. More recently I have worked with adults who are much more capable than the individuals in the previous setting. Many of them can read, write and use computers. For some reason even the people who can’t read or write still know how to use Facebook and text on their cell phones. Many of them have jobs in the community that they are able to do with some support.
People have asked me over the years why I chose such a difficult profession, often filled with such sadness. I suppose it all depends on how one looks at it. The way I see it, throughout the years I’ve had the good fortune to meet many wonderful people. Appreciating their gifts and unique ways of looking at the world is one of the keys to enjoying the work. Another crucial survival skill to have in this field is to be able to “find the funny.” The funny is that spark of joy in the middle of what some would consider tragic, sad, or just plain icky.
Now make no mistake, when I say “find the funny” I am in no way suggesting that I laugh at the people I have worked with. Rather I am suggesting that it is important to find the humor in situations one is faced with. This is actually a good rule of thumb for life in general.
I have realized while working in this field that I have seen, heard, and said some of the funniest things in my life. Sometimes the funny comes from realizing the value of basic things that most people take for granted. Other times it’s about appreciating life’s struggles and realizing how much better I have it than some. And then there are times when I just find myself in ridiculous situations that I wish I could catch on tape so people would believe me.
As I mentioned earlier I started out working in psych units during college. At all of 20 years old, I did a few shifts on the pre-teen unit and I certainly learned some good life lessons. Eight year olds can be some of the best teachers. Rule #1: when dealing with an angry child who is throwing a tantrum, NEVER catch only one arm. This kid was running down the hall screaming. I was near the door so it was my job to stop him before he ran out the door into the night. I’d only been on the job a few weeks but as this little guy advanced toward me I thought “I’ve got this.” He only came up to my waist, how hard could it be? I reached out and grabbed his arm as he flew past me. NOT A GOOD IDEA. Now anchored by a one hundred (and then some) pound person his forward momentum vanished. He did a sling shot backward, bringing his fist around, and punched me in the stomach. That’s the kind of mistake you don’t make twice! Later in the shift another little boy gave me some advice that probably holds true to this day in some ways. The staff members were addressed as Mr. and Miss and then last names, like in elementary school. Since I was not yet married, my name on that unit was Miss David. Toward the end of my work day, this little boy took me aside and said to me, “Miss David, you’re too much of a softy. You have to be more of a strickty.” Out of the mouths of babes. I don’t want to think about how long ago that was… that “babe” is probably about 25 now.
Not such bad lessons for a day of work. Sometimes the thanks that you get are the pearls of wisdom from the people you work with. So remember… Be a good balance of softy and strickty and never catch one arm unless you can get the other one too.