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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care

Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

Which Way to Paradise?

Thom Garfat

Which way to Paradise?" she demanded as she leapt down from the transport that had brought her back from a long ‘weekend at home’ with her mother and sisters. Question unanswered, she ran three circles around the mini-bus preventing it from leaving until, winding down, she returned to the door of the bus and shouted at the driver, "Thanks for the ride, Willie. See you again the next time my brain gets loose." The driver shook his head and with a little smile and laugh, put the mini-bus in gear and lurched forward to the sounds of a off beat song, sung hopelessly out of tune by the chorus of remaining passengers. I stood waiting.

She turned to me, tilted her head slightly, and smiled. "Well I hope your perpendicular perspicacities are finely tuned, Tommie, my friend. I have some observations of non-obvious ocularity for you to divine." This said she spun in a circle, long hair whirling behind her as she spread energy and joy across an otherwise mundane parking lot on the wrong side of town. She shook her body like a wet puppy as she stopped her circle right in front of me with practiced precision.

I laughed out loud and smiled back. "Ali. Ali. Ali. It is always such a delight to come and pick you up. You give energy and life to the meaning of reunion. Nice to have you back."

"Ah," she said, her face changing as rapidly as the March weather, "Make no mistake, Thomas. I am pissed, pissed, pissed. My mother is such a bitch! I don’t like myself and I wish I was different." Her face reverted to its previous state and her voice became lyrical again as she said, "Now, take my hand, walk us to the awaiting chariot, and whisk us back to the castle called the treatment centre. There and there alone shall I reveal that which you seek."

"Come maiden, " I retorted as we walked lightly across to the van and I reflected on her history. Ali was fourteen. She had been in care off and on since the age of six. She was short, thin, wild, and tormented. She tended to be a whirlwind of words which, given her ability, tended to keep most of us confused, on-guard, bordering on nodding off, or engaged in the nonsense. It really depended, it seemed, on how you related to this idiosyncrasy of hers. I tended to fall, I think, in to the latter category. I always enjoyed her playfulness and ability.

Of course, I usually didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. But that didn’t really matter because most of the time we just played it out. Just being with her was always a treat – well, maybe not always . . . when she was in those dark moods where she wanted to slice her wrists like birthday ham, or leap from tall buildings, or even swallow slivers of collectable glass, it really wasn’t much fun. Or the time when she wanted to cut off my head with a cleaver taken from the pantry when no one was looking. But that was in our yesterdays – and maybe our tomorrows – but today was today. And today she was full of energy it seemed.

It was a short ride back to the centre and after one quick flippant comment on the hopeless nature of my driving, to which I responded, I liked to think, with equal wit, Ali sat silently looking out the window for the ten minutes it took us to arrive.

Once we got there, I expected to see her jump from the van and spin into the treatment centre but she just continued sitting there, staring out the window. I had never seen her like this. She always shot out of the car like a jet-propelled wind up toy. I turned off the car and didn’t open the door.

"What’s up, Ali?"

She turned slowly. A could see the wet in her eyes and the struggle she was having to stay calm and self-possessed. "I don’t like being me, Tom" she said. "Its time for a change."

I was stupid. Caught so off-guard by this real moment, I tried to make light of it; to nudge us back in to our normal way of being together. "We’ve been telling you that for years, Ali. There is wisdom in our ways. Glad you finally agree."

The tear dropped and was followed by another. "God, Ali, I’m so sorry. That was so insensitive of me."

"Its okay, Tom. I know people think that I am just an idiot, running around, babbling, not serious. It’s not your fault. Everybody thinks of me that way."

I hadn’t experienced Ali like this before and the truth is, I wasn’t sure how to be with her. As I struggled to find a way I realized how easy it had been for me to be with her up to this point. I related to her exactly as she had just described – like a little ‘idiot, running around, babbling, not serious’. And it had been easy. Easier to connect to the protective role she had created than to wonder about the real person buried beneath the façade. I had been relating to her like she was a new puppy, delightful to be with if you just focussed on the energetic antics, ignored the mess on the floor, and interspersed the training when she seemed willing.

Truth is, I was shocked by this realisation. Perhaps this is what we had all been doing? Or perhaps it was just me? And perhaps those people I used to scoff at for ‘having a hard time’ with Ali, were having a hard time because they were trying to push past the barriers, to find the real Ali, to connect with the person, not the role. Doing what they thought was best for her, not just what was easiest for them. Like I had been doing.

And I realised, in this moment, that when Ali goes to those dark places where she ends up hurting herself and others, I am the first in line to help ‘lift her spirits’, ‘perk her up’, ‘lighten her day’, help her ‘get back to her normal self’. And I realised as well that all those days, all those hours, all those minutes that I had spent with Ali, ‘enjoying her’, were really about moving her away from something that I didn’t want to experience myself. No wonder I never had any problems with her. I had spent my energy helping her to deny who she was; to avoid moments just like the one that was threatening to happen between us right now. I was afraid of her dark side and so I’d been helping her to hide rather than to heal.

 gripped onto the steering wheel as if we were catapulting down a mountain road with no brakes and only huge chasms waiting us if we fell off the road. In that terrified state I wondered "if I am this scared of encountering the ‘real’ Ali, what must it be like for her?" I couldn’t begin to imagine. I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and keep her safe from herself. And me safe from myself as well.

But that wasn’t what she was asking for.

"You know, Ali. I think I have been relating to you just like you said."

"Me too," she said sadly. "That’s just as much how I think about myself as it is how I think others think about me. But I’m tired of it now. It’s too much work. I don’t want to do it any more."

"Ali? What happened at home?"

"You know that’s the first time you ever asked me about what happened at home. Normally you’re just joking around when I get back. Like everybody else. And I know that’s as much about how I act when I come back as it is anything else."

She laughed a little. "See, I have been listening those times when people talked to me. I bet you all thought I was just ignoring what you were saying. But I wasn’t. I just didn’t want to be different, but now I do."

"Ali? You’re not answering me. What happened at home?"

It was getting cold in the car, but Ali didn’t seem to notice. And I wondered why I did. But I didn’t want to disturb the moment so I just sat there with her. Waiting. Wondering. Thinking. And the truth is, I was thinking about me as much as I was thinking about her. Was this really the first time I had asked her? Was I usually just ‘joking around’ each time I picked her up? Was I really ‘just like everybody else’? Had I really missed that many opportunities to just connect; to be with her in a real way? Was I really such an incompetent? Had I really wasted so much time?

All my defences rushed in to protect me. ‘She was never available. She always wanted to joke around herself and I was just being with her the way she wanted me to be. How can you relate to somebody who isn’t willing to be present? I was cool. She was ‘out to lunch’. This isn’t about me, it’s about her. She’ll be okay in a minute.’

"Nothing happened at home, Tom. That’s just the point. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The same as always. It was like every other time. Nothing happened."

"Well, if nothing happened, what’s all this about wanting to change? To be different? Why would you want to change if everything is okay?"

"Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. You just don’t get it, do you? That’s the whole point! Everything was the same. It’s been the same as long as I can remember. I go home. My mother says hello, then she returns to whatever she was doing . . . . usually involving some different guy . . . and then she doesn’t say a word until I’m leaving again. She acts as if I’m not even there. And then it’s like, "Oh, is it time for you to go? But we haven’t had a chance to talk yet. Oh, well, next time. And then she goes back to whatever she was doing. That’s it. Nothing more."

"So what do you do?" I asked.

"Usually I run around like a chicken with its head cut off, hoping she’ll notice. But she never does. I tell you, it’s like I’m not even there."

"And this time?"

"Well, after I had been there for a few minutes, I started up with the . . . well, you know . . . the diabolical dialogue; the activating antics; the idiotic illogical idiosyncrasies. All of which, as you guys are always telling me, are designed to make people notice me. Only this time I noticed. That’s the only thing that was really different, if you want to know the truth. This time I noticed."

I waited. Maybe too afraid to talk. Maybe just wondering. Definitely unsure.

"You want to know what I noticed? I noticed that it didn’t make any difference. It doesn’t matter if I act like a lunatic, stay quiet, disappear in to the woodwork or even, I suppose, blow up like a balloon and pop in her face. She just doesn’t notice me no matter what I do."

And then she started to shake. She didn’t cry. She just shook like someone shivering from a too cold night. No more tears. No sobs. Just the shake.

I reached out and took hold of her, drew her close, said nothing and waited some more.

After a while she stopped and pulled back to her corner of the van.

"So then I got to thinking," she said. "I go to all this work to get people to pay attention to me and what happens? Nothing. Fucking nothing. What’s the point! I may as well be dead."

"I used to do that," I said. "When I was your age. I used to do everything I could to make people pay attention to me. Sometimes they did. Sometimes they didn’t. But the people I cared about; the ones I wanted to pay attention to me – well, when they did, it wasn’t the kind of attention I wanted anyway. I wanted them to like me, to want to be with me. Instead, when they finally noticed, they ran the other way. I know that feeling, Ali. It’s horrible, like being invisible to everyone but yourself."

At this point I didn’t know if I was feeling empathic, or feeling sorry for my own adolescent self, the two were so intertwined I couldn’t tell. But it seemed right so I stayed there, somewhere on the border between Ali and my self. Standing at the gate where we met.

"I remember when I decided to give it up," I choked.

***

And I was remembering all those lost years. The time wasted hoping someone would notice, care, reach out, and touch me. And I remembered the rage. The self-loathing. The desperation.

I was thirteen when I chopped my hair into a brushcut. I didn’t like it but all the cool guys in the sports clubs had them and I wanted to be like them. So I thought if I cut my hair the same, it would make me a part of the group. Cool. In. With it. A member of the club. They would notice me and I would be accepted. So, the coolest guy of the group noticed and came over. I was ready. "If you are going to have a brushcut, at least brush it straight, dork," he said. I let my hair grow back.

I was fourteen when I ran away to be a shoeshine boy on the streets of Vancouver. My dream? One of the mafia would notice me and take me in to the family. But sleeping in the park under yesterdays newspaper didn’t agree with me. I was back home in a week. When I got back it was like no-one had noticed I was missing. Life went on the same as before.

I was fifteen when I was expelled from school with a demand that I couldn’t come back until a psychiatrist said I was safe to be around others. I spent my sessions doing headstands on his couch. He never mentioned it.

I was sixteen when I finally escaped from schooling into a meaningless job unloading watermelons from a boxcar. I used to stomp on them to hear them pop.

None of it ever worked. Nobody who mattered noticed.

I was much older when I gave up and decided to be me. Ali was ahead of the game.

***

"Tom! Tom! Are you there?’’

It was Ali. I could hear her ‘out there’.

* * *

Karen VanderVen uses military images . . . I was ‘lost in action’ somewhere over yesterday, marching towards an encounter on the front lines of my existence. Gerry would wonder, reflectively, if I was ‘lost in my Self’. Mark might say I was ‘caught up in the dance of my own existence’. Leon would talk to me about connecting rhythmicity. Henry would wonder about the influence of context on the moment. Carol would question my professionalism. Kelly would wonder if I was being consistent. Ernie would question my congruence. Heather would reach out and smile a welcome. Zeni would ask how I was doing. What is the meaning of me? There is no destiny; only what we are and become. God! Was I living in a book?

* * *

Louder this time: "Tom! Tom! Are you there?" It was Ali, calling to me from somewhere outside, lifting me from the spiral. She had noticed I was missing. She had caught me just in time. Who was helping who here?

"Sorry Ali," I mumbled. "I was deep in my own thoughts. What did you say?"

"I asked, ‘do you think it is a good idea?’"

"What? What, Ali? Do I think ‘what’ is a good idea?"

"Me deciding to be me."

"But," I wondered out loud, ‘If you haven’t been you, who have you been?" Who was I talking to her? Ali or me? I decided I should talk to Ali so I moved quickly to another sentence before either of us could answer me.

"Being you would be a wonderful thing," I said. "I can’t think of anything I would rather see you do."

"Really?" There was a hesitation there; an uncertainty, as if she wasn’t sure if I was being honest with her. I couldn’t blame her. She was used to being humoured. Especially by me, I realised.

"Really, Ali. I can’t think of anything finer." I thought for another minute. "Will I recognise you?" I wondered.

"It depends on whether or not you let me change in your mind, Tom," she said. "If you don’t then you won’t see me so it won’t matter." She reached over and rubbed the top of my head; a little, if the truth be known, like she was petting a puppy.

‘Ali, if I can let me change, I think I can let you change. The real question might be, can you? Let’s go inside."

And so we did. I’d like to tell you that she was different from that moment on, but of course she wasn’t. There were times when she was her ‘old self’ and I had to stop myself from helping her to hide. And there were times when she was her ‘new self’ and I had to stop myself from thinking this was all about me. But in the end Ali became, as she liked to call it, her ‘different self’. She wasn’t really a different person, just different in relationship. She was Ali. She would always be Ali. In the end neither of us really remembered who she had been before, but somehow we never forgot either. But it didn’t really matter. Because both of us learned to enjoy her ‘different Ali’, the one, perhaps, that she was always meant to be. The one she found, lost as it was, on that long weekend at home so long ago.

Ali called the other day. "Tom," she said, "I just came home with my baby. I am going to be a different me again. And I am going to notice everything she does. Come and visit."

As for me . . . well, I still struggle to separate me from them; self from other. But as Mark says, "better to be uncertain anyway. That way you won’t make the same mistake."

Well, we can hope. 

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