Mental Health

I thought for sure it was broken. I grabbed a handful of tissues from the nearest Kleenex box and held them to my face to stop the blood. I was caught off guard, it was a solid left hook, he was just a kid.
My first job out of college was at a group home in Seattle. It was amazing…..and terrible….and exhausting. Over the course of a little over a year, I was in 3 separate programs that all closed due to a lack of funding, and I was making $10/hour.
I should have been more prepared, but I got walloped by a 10 year old boy. A boy that was volatile, irrational, upset, confused, abrasive and at the same time, overwhelmingly endearing. I had the privilege of spending 4 months working one on one with this kid in hopes of “getting him ready for a classroom setting”. Let’s call him “J”.
J was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. What this meant for him was that he had a very hard time controlling his emotions, understanding situations, and communicating. He was developmentally at about a 2 or 3 year old level. J’s mother was also a heavy cocaine user during her pregnancy. One of the side effects of being exposed to cocaine in the womb can be accelerated physical maturation. So, at 10 years old J was in the midst of puberty with the mindset of a 2 year old.
The first month working with J I wanted out. It was painful, nothing made sense, and there was not a chance in the world he was going to sit at a desk and do worksheets. J was one of 5 kids in the group and I was one of two workers. In that first month so many things were thrown, broken, torn, and because I could physically handle J, we spent most of the day just the two of us. It was awful. At the advice of one of the many amazing people working at this facility, I deviated from the curriculum and abandoned the idea of getting J school ready. Instead of taking J into the “classroom”, I took him outside. We planted a garden.
Every morning we walked up the hill to this little plot of grass that J meticulously tended to. He would find worms, gently move them to a piece of land that he wasn’t currently digging in, and re-bury them with dirt. J would get excited about seeing the growth and change, he was encapsulated. Other kids would walk by, sometimes they would say things and I would anticipate an explosion, but there was nothing. He was serene, happy, and communicative. We started to get an understanding of each other in this environment and the minuscule daily struggles started to disappear. I found how to help him deescalate and regain control, and he was so proud when he managed to restrain himself. Things weren’t perfect, I still got punched square in the nose, but because I knew him, because I got a chance to really understand him, I couldn’t be mad about it.
We were sitting on the floor reading, and had just finished a book. I told J lunch was ready if we wanted to go eat. I got punched. That simple.
“I’m sorry” he said following me to the sink. “I’m sorry!”, he kept repeating it.
My nose was dripping blood, and it sucked, but I knew he was really sorry. The impulse reaction of J when he did not want to do something was to lash out. I was just not prepared for something as innocuous as eating lunch to be the instigating comment.
He kept hugging me as I stopped the blood. He really had no control, it wasn’t his fault.
The program closed about a month after this, the 3rd program of the year for me, and I moved from Seattle shortly after.
J is 23 or so now, I wonder where he is. I hope that he is having a life and not sedated in an institution somewhere. I really hope he is not living on the street.
We don’t have a budget for kids like J. He had a shitty mom, was dealt a shitty hand, and we have a shitty system to support him.
We (The U.S.) spend money in a lot of places I could complain about, but I certainly don’t have any answers.
What I do know is that when you see someone on the street having a conversation with themselves or doing something “weird”, they probably need help, help that we don’t have a budget for. No matter how offensive or terrifying, whatever the situation, it is not necessarily their fault. We should all remember that.