This morning I was precariously close to slapping a person with a disability.
I took a job in disability support because I wanted to work within the community, alongside some of our more marginalised citizens, walking the journey and offering respect and dignity where there is often abuse.
But this morning, I felt abusive. I thought mean thoughts and had a great desire to pull her hair as I pushed her cardigan over her head. I whipped the sling straps from under her legs and was brisk and careless as I pulled her folds of skin back to dry.
It is really easy to be abusive.
Patricia makes me so mad sometimes - the kind of mad that makes your blood boil. I've seen other staff members go off the wall at her: she has a habit of telling you exactly how you should be conducting your work:
"Now mop the floor!"
"You can't have a break now!"
"Put on the gumboots when you're giving me a shower!"
They don't sound like big things, but she hits up against this raw nerve, which sits at the tip of our pride. Personal care workers feel this especially: we don't have a lot of power in our jobs, but was sure as hell would like to decide whether or not to wear a pair of gumboots. I'm surprised at how mad I can get around Patricia. Working with her feels like being a servant, with her string of commands that she ends with "please", which somehow has the effect of making her sound more demanding.
Sometimes I watch my emotional-maturity-meter plummet to near zero around Patricia, and I struggle to find creative ways to respond. There is always a temptation to take advantage of her lower level of intelligence, for example:
"Would you like to go down a bit on the bed so I can dry your skin?"
"You forgot to say the magic word, Adriana." (she hasn't quite mastered my name, but neither have most of my colleagues, so that's ok)
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't say 'please'. You should be more polite when you speak to me."
Now it would be really tempting to say something smart ass like, "Generally in the English language we only use the word 'please' when we are making a request of someone; in this particular case I am asking for your preference. But since you so insist, please would you like to go down a bit on the bed so I can dry your skin please Patricia?"
Such a response would be personally satisfying, but would also be a really unloving use of the intelligence and education I have been given through sheer good fortune. So I bit my tongue, and explained that I was giving her an option, rather than asking her to do something. I didn't say please, though. I still have my pride!
What I am struggling to find is a balance of patience, gentleness and assertiveness around Patricia. She can be REALLY hard to love, at times. At other times, I see her light - like the other night, when I bumped into her in the city. I called out to her; she jumped (she was using the ATM); then smiled and laughed and we had a nice chat. A surprise encounter that made me remember that I still liked Patricia. I introduced Patricia to David, and was really pleased that they could each meet the person I spoke so much about.
But this morning she refused to lift the doona from over her head, finally peering through a crack to tell me how angry and upset she was with me, for scaring her in the city. She had a point - she was using the ATM at the time, and taking money from an ATM at night, in a wheelchair, must leave one feeling quite vulnerable. But I was sad and a bit upset myself, that our lovely impromptu encounter had ended in anger and resentment. I give a lot of grace in that relationship, and sometimes wish I got some back.
Patricia is demanding and prickly for a reason. She hasn't had the happiest of lives...how do you go on after being abandoned by your parents for being a 'cripple'? Shunting someone from foster family to foster family doesn't generally produce a whole, well-balanced person, who feels they can trust the world and its inhabitants.
I was hoping that I could offer a little love to Patricia, in her world that is so marred by burnt bridges and broken relationships. But loving Patricia is really hard work, and I'm not sure whether I'm in this for the long haul.