I didn't set out to work with kids with emotional/behavioral disabilities. I wanted to work with orphans at a local social service agency, so I was very excited when I got the call for a job interview. See, at the time, I didn't know I was co-dependent. I only knew that I was drawn to people who were suffering and needed love. I had always been a caretaker. (I had a savior complex, I guess.) So, I was disappointed when the interviewer asked me, instead, if I would consider working with teens in their AODA* group home. Not wanting to seem unappreciative, I agreed to "check it out."
Twenty minutes later, I found myself sitting across from some "dirtball**" kids smoking at the kitchen table of a group home for kids recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. I had walked through the door tentatively; these kids were kind of scary. They were rule breakers; something foreign to me. Taffy (her real name) was the first kid I met. She had heavy eye makeup on, but the thing I noticed most was the large, homemade tattoo of her name, which ran from her shoulder all the way down to mid forearm. Wow. This girl was tough. To say I was a little intimidated is an understatement.
I am reminded of a quote from a movie in which Angelina Jolie (as a very young woman) plays a teenager who wears tons of stark, scary makeup and has wild hair. She admits, "I wear this mask so that people don't know how really scared I am." If you're tough enough to have an enormous tattoo on your arm, people are less likely to mess with you, right?
Surprisingly, my discomfort didn't last long. These kids, with their rough, startling exteriors, were friendly, sweet, funny, and wise. I suddenly realized that they were no different than any other kid I had met; they just looked different on the outside. Same fears, same needs, same insecurities; just better at keeping people at a distance, where they were less likely to hurt them. And here they were, living in a group home, having experienced lives much worse than mine. If eyes are the windows to the soul, I was seeing some pretty dark places; I was 20 years old, but I felt like a child next to these teens, some who seemed at least twice their ages.
How brave these kids must be, I thought. To break the rules, show disrespect towards authority figures, tattoo and pierce their bodies, smoke, and all at such young ages. (Taffy was 15.) To this day, I have never met a kid with an emotional-behavioral disability who doesn’t tell it like it is, and I find that refreshing. Those group home kids were no exception. I was hooked.
Flash forward a couple of months.
Every time we had Group Therapy, I found myself identifying with the kids' emotions. If one of them shared a story that made them cry, I was right there crying with them. I often put an arm around them to comfort them and help them get control of their emotions. They shared their stories, their pain, their fears. There were many nights that I went home and found myself sobbing; I felt so sad for those kids. I grew in respect for them, too. These "dirtball" kids' in so much pain that they had to self-medicate, had enough bravery to act out; to sacrifice their bodies and their security, to draw attention (consciously or not) to their problems . To me, they were heroes. These "sneaky, manipulative, trouble making" kids were more honest, in some ways, than I was.
One day, during a staff meeting, I teared up while talking about one of the kids, and the staff psychologist turned to me and gently asked, "Your dad's an alcoholic, isn't he?"
I was incredulous! How could he tell? Was he some kind of clairvoyant? See, at the time, I didn't know that I wore my co-dependency on my sleeve. My colleague's gentle observation is the reason I attended my first Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting and started down the road of self-discovery and recovery from my own childhood demons. It was a road on which I was ready to embark.
To be continued... Dirtballs, Part II
*AODA-Alcohol and Drug Abuse
*dirtballs (what we called them in my high school...otherwise known as greasers, hoods, druggies, etc.)