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CYC-Online 124 JUNE 2009
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A good piece of work

Laura Steckley

I had lunch with a friend the other day. She’s a fellow ressie. Even though we both are now in what has been termed indirect practice, that area of our field dedicated to equipping and supporting staff in direct practice, I still feel a connection with her the way I used to feel an immediate fit with fellow direct care practitioners. We had a lovely time catching up, and as the lunch was finishing she asked me where I was off to next.

Before telling you more, I want to return to something I wrote about last month. In exploring the whys of theory informing our practice, I used a city map as a metaphor. Those who know me well might have chuckled at the irony of this, as I am directionally challenged. This is actually a gross understatement. I can get lost inside a paper bag. It takes huge effort to find my way back from somewhere new, and I usually get it wrong the second, third and fourth times as well. I also have great difficulty reading and following maps. I get east and west mixed up and if I’m tired or stressed, it feels like an impossible task to get from A to B.

I try to maintain a useful perspective about this, and my difficulties have been the source of many funny stories. However, I’ve also been reduced to tears of frustration, particularly when running late. When in the wrong state of mind or amongst the wrong crowd, this poor sense of direction feels like a huge deficit. To those blessed with the ability to find their way, it’s difficult to understand my poor judgement when faced with which way to go. It seems obvious to them, and they wonder why is it I can’t just pay closer attention, try harder or simply use better judgement.

I wonder, sometimes, if this might be how a lot of the kids in residential child care feel. How often have those around them conveyed similar sentiments, with no real appreciation for the struggle involved in making the “right choice”? An understanding as to why someone is struggling can ease this a bit, but at least my whole identity isn’t reduced to my inability to find my way. There’s also no moral overtone when I take a wrong turn. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the experiences of many young people in residential child care.

Luckily for me, I have a good bit of control over how often I go to unfamiliar places and how much support I can elicit for my travels. When one has significant struggles with the social and emotional dimensions of life, there are difficulties at every turn. Often the available maps are counterproductive at best, and highly destructive at worst. And because the terrain is made up of relationships, the supports needed to make ones way are taxed, damaged or completely absent. I shudder to think of a life dominated by those moments when I’ve been so completely lost, misunderstood and alone.

I think about how preoccupied we staff were about holding young people accountable. A lot of time was dedicated to intricate systems of “consequences” and rewards. Helping young people to develop a healthy, active sense of personal responsibility is indeed important, and it is terribly complex. I think we often got it wrong related to this, and I wonder how I would feel if someone tried to hold me accountable for getting lost.

Food for thought.

Anyway, back to my friend. During our lunch, she had told me about a couple of nice caf–s, not far from where we were having lunch. So when she asked me where I was off to, I said I thought I might try to find one of them and go do some work. I don’t remember if she already knew about my poor sense of direction, but I probably made some self-effacing joke about how it might go “me trying to find the place. Within less than a minute, we were poring over a Glasgow city map, and she was turning it this way and that to help me get perspective and orientation (I told you she was a ressie). She must have sensed that I really didn’t get it, so when we headed out, she claimed to need to go in that direction too (and maybe that was true “how would I know?). It was a lovely sunny afternoon (a precious thing where I live) and so she commented on how much she was enjoying the walk and that she would just accompany me there. Along the way, she pointed out visible and memorable landmarks, and the overall shape and organisation of the area.

When we arrived at the caf”, she did the most interesting thing. I don’t know how she did it, but the next thing I knew I was walking back with her to the area of the city I knew. On this return journey, she again was helping me to orient and this time integrate the new into the familiar. So when I left her at the train station, I was able to immediately make the journey back to the cafs.

On the way back, I reflected on my friend's subtle, skilful way of enabling me to feel directionally able. She did this by doing with me, but more importantly, by being with me. My deficits or problems weren’t the focus. If this occurrence happened between a practitioner and young person, it would likely be referred to as a “piece of work”. And, I guess a good piece of work it was, though all the better because I never felt the object of it.

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