Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Problem

No matter who you talked to, everyone agreed that Ben was the problem. All the teachers at his school said he was difficult. His Mom complained that she’d tried everything, but he wouldn’t listen to her. Ben’s sisters said that everything was fine at home, with the exception of him, of course. So when I got the call from the County DCFS Worker, she apologized for handing the case over to me, "I’m really sorry to have to do this to you, Theresa. I don’t think you’ll be able to do anything, but by law we have to try before we can place him in a long-term medical facility."

When I hung up the phone, I looked out the window for a really long time. I couldn’t think of what to do next because I was in shock that someone had just apologized for making me help an 11-year old boy.

The visit at the family’s home was just as I expected. While I was talking with Mom, the sisters were quiet and patient. Meanwhile, a perfectly healthy blond, blue-eyed 11-year old boy disrupted with questions and constant noise and activity. I pretended to ignore him while I talked with his Mom. In reality, I didn’t miss a thing he was doing. Mom’s story was the same sad song of frustration and gloom. Ben had a new story.

For the next 10 months I spent a lot of time with Ben and his family. My favorite times were the times when I took Ben out for an ice cream cone or to the skateboard park where he showed me his stunts. He wasn’t a problem during those visits. In fact, he relished opportunities to be helpful.

I made a habit of making sure that my car needed gas so I could fill up while he was with me. He liked to operate the gas pump, and said he wanted to do it so my hands wouldn’t smell like stinky gasoline. I taught him about the manual transmission of the car. When I pushed in the clutch, he operated the gearshift. These were such easy things to do for a kid who had few places to feel good about himself.

Ben’s family was a mess. Dad was a drug addict chronically in and out of prison. He was in prison at the time. Mom was good at making children, but not so effective at raising them. His two older brothers were in adolescent detention centers. His oldest sister was 21. She had 2 kids, and their Daddy had just been released from prison. It appeared as if the women were the only ones who stayed at home and out of trouble.

One day I got an emergency phone call from Ben’s Mom. She said there was something important she needed to talk with me about right way. At her request, we met at a local coffee shop. Once we were settled in to a booth several tables away from other customers, she whispered, "Ben told me that he wants to be a rabbit when he grows up. Not only that, he wants to be a girl rabbit so that he can have lots of babies. Do you think this means he’s crazy or gay or something?"

This was the big emergency?

I had a really difficult time not laughing in this woman’s face. I had an equally difficult time not grabbing her by the throat and throttling her. I already knew about Ben’s rabbit fantasy. He had shared it with me a number of times. His Mom wasn’t able to see how it fit into the family pattern.

My dear sweet Ben loved all animals. If anyone ever saw him handling the family’s pet rabbits, or the neighbor’s puppy, or even listened to him talk about his dreams of traveling in Africa to see real Lions and Elephants in the wild, they would never think of him as a hopeless problem.

The real problem wasn’t Ben. He was just following the family tradition. Ben was almost 12 years old, and that was the age that the men of the family prepared to leave. The way they left was by becoming a problem. In real life, Ben was being loyal to the family tradition, but in his fantasy life, he got to stay at home. If he was a rabbit; if he was a girl, he would be able to stay.

It wasn’t long after that conversation that I left my position and moved away. It was hard to say goodbye to Ben. I worried about what would happen to him. Would the next therapist think he was the problem? Would she/he fight for him as hard as I did? Would she/he love him?

Ben gave me a little figure of a rabbit as a gift before I moved. He said it was for good luck. I told him that I would keep it in the car so nothing bad would happen to me when I was traveling. I told him to grow up and go to Africa.

Ben will be turning 24 this month. I hope he’s celebrating on the Serengeti.

Happy Birthday Ben!

(A number of specifics were changed about this story in order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the family)


At 7:28 AM, Blogger Queen Of Pink said...

Everyone that we meet leaves an impression on us. Some of the impressions fade with time. Some of them are more profound and beautiful and everlasting. What you have done for so many others is a wonderful thing Theresa. I know that Ben and so many others were changed because you were in their lives.

Happy Birthday Ben!

At 9:44 AM, Blogger theresa said...

Oh Queen, you made me get something in my eye again *sniff*
I wasn't really thinking about that when I wrote about Ben. I was thinking about how much he taught me.

It seems like we need to honor the creative ways that people survive extraordinary circumstances. Ben discovered a way to save his sweet soul by hiding it away in his imagination. I'm telling ya', when nobody was looking that kid was fucking awesome!

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Tommy said...

Working with youth is both a blessing and a curse. There is that point that you want to grab them and hold them and tell them that they don't have to follow the pattern; that they get to make a choice for their own lives. But there is a line that can't be crossed because if you get too caught up in it you can't help. You are no longer the voice of reason that is seperate from the problem.
I know I'm rambling but you know what I mean Theresa; again you have to have experienced it to understand. Just know that that kid had more of a chance because you cared...

At 12:54 PM, Blogger Chick said...

OK...Theresa, I think I love you almost as much as Ben did...

I love when people are awesome...when no one is looking...’cuz you sometimes HAVE to look to see the beauty in someone...who no one else takes the time to see...& not judge.

My favorite part of this story is the fact that you made sure you needed Ben could help you & feel useful. Not many people would think that something so seemingly small...was big.

At 11:07 PM, Blogger theresa said...

Tommy, I definitely know what you mean. There have been too many times that I just wanted to grab a kid and take them home with me. If I had followed through everytime, I'd be Old Mother Hubbard by now.

At the same time, as a professional, I know the importance of boundaries. I've seen people hurt ... really hurt when professionals have been careless about such things.

Chick, I swear, if you met the kid, all you'd have to do is take one look in his sweet eyes and you'd know the truth. I think other people got caught up in the fact that he came from a "bad" family. He was one of "them". He was expected to be bad.

Ben was quite a remarkable kid. He got such a kick out of that whole gas pump thing because he was doing something nice for me. Another kid might have been more focused on messing around with the gadgets. He did a lot of things like that for myself and others. At the tender age of 11, Ben had a generous and loving heart.

I kept track of him for a few years. Actually, I was a bit of a tyrant with some of my former collegues for the first 6 months (Somehow I thought I could supervise his case from 1000 miles away. errr, did I just mention boundaries?). I know that he made it at least to age 15 without being institutionalized, but he was placed in family foster care. Depending on the family, it may have been the best thing for him.

At 8:44 AM, Blogger Tiger said...

I think that this is SO true of so many kids labeled ADHD--not that I deny in any way that that is a REAL problem--I just think that in (most) of the cases I've seen... Some positive reinforcement (as opposed to the constancy of PUNISHMENT they recieve say, at school like in my son's class), oh--perhaps some attention to DIET/NUTRITION (as opposed to pumping them full of crap) and yeah, even a bit of structure and discipline. ATTENTION.
...yeah. I think there are kids who maybe DO need meds--but I think that should be the LAST resort--especially in minds so young. They don't really know what all these psych drugs DO--they just know that they seem to work (for some people) y'know? What long term effects might they have on minds so young as 10 years old?? That is something that bothers me. & I'm not talking about ritalin even... but all the sudden they're ok'ing antidepressants for little kids.
That is f*cking insane if you ask me.

...nobody wants to work at stuff--everyone wants the Quick Fix. If you can't fix it quick--medicate it.

You are a GOOD soul, woman. Definitely a HOT CHIK!! :D


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