I read this poem in a book (which I’ll talk more about soon). On many levels in resonated with me (whilst not being religious) and thought I’d share it. It came from the Jubilee Association of Maryland website: http://www.jubileemd.org/template/page.cfm?page_id=45
My Friend Charlie
Nate Hajdu shared this heart-felt poem at the Interfaith Disability Pre-Summit in Washington, DC on September 22, 2005.
My Friend Charlie
He is my friend: I am his friend
I help him out: He helps me to learn
I help him to learn: He helps me to grow
I help him to grow: He teaches me to accept
His struggle: Is my struggle
His vulnerability: Leads to my respect
My respect: Leads him to trust
His trust: Leads to my devotion
His availability: Feeds my desire to be needed
I keep his secrets: He keeps mine
We have an arrangement
His lack of self-consciousness: Leads to my tolerance
His constant need for stimulation: Leads to my patience
His discomfort: Sharpens my sensitivity
His unhappiness: Is my challenge
His presence: Eases my isolation
His loyalty: Leads to my loyalty
Which leads to mutual appreciation
His brokenness: Makes me accept my own brokenness
Which leads to healing
His humanity: Leads to personal connection
His steadfastness: Centers me
His smile: Is my reward
His joy: Lifts my spirits
His happiness: Gives me a sense of purpose
His struggles: Expose my anxieties
Which tests me
Then strengthens me
And in turn bolsters my faith
In guiding: I am guided
In helping: I am helped
In teaching: I am taught
In his laughter: There is joy
In that joy: There is energy
In that energy: There is spirit
In that spirit: There is grace
I was thinking about a friend of mine. His name was Nim. Nim and I used to have fun together. We would have the best “da da” conversations: I’m not talking high art here, I’m talking literally we would say “da da” to each other. These were most fun in van where we could be as loud as we liked. Sometimes we’d go down to the market on the weekends. We’d roll up and down the market and I’d watch Nim smell the coffee. Sometimes we’d stop in at a stall and Nim would have a bit of a back massage. I’d watch his face screw up with the tension then suddenly release as the knot uncoiled. Then we’d go over to the grass and unhindered by OH&S I’d lift him out of his wheelchair and we’d lay around on the grass looking at the sky through the trees, playing our strange version of arm wrestles.
Nim died seven years ago. He taught me many things, but one of the things he taught me was about death; that when somebody dies part of what we miss is the person, and another part we miss is part of ourselves, who we were when we were with that person, because we can never be the same person again.
I can close my eyes and see Nim’s face and the crazy way his red hair rolled in furrows on his head particularly when he’d just had a number 2. I can close my eyes and almost feel our “da da” times together.
Services in Australia all tend to subscribe to the philosophy of inclusion. An implied part of inclusion is friendship and other sorts of social networks. But how has concepts of friendship been applied to people with PIMD? What does friendship mean when thinking about people with PIMD: what does it mean to the person with a disability, what does it mean to the friend, and what does it mean for support services?
My best friend, Keith McVilly (who also happened to have looked at friendships of people with mild-moderate ID for his PhD) and I discussed this today. I think it is worthwhile to start with my own bias. I have friends who have PIMD. I have also battled with services to allow me to exercise my friendships, experiencing the red tape and the reluctance of some services to go into “risky territory”. I think we have a long way to go to understand how inclusion is to occur for people with PIMD in environments that are risk aversive.
Here are some thoughts that came from Keith and me. Mainstream friendship is usually conceptualised as a relationship of mutual respect with equality and reciprocity. Within this relationship each person takes on different roles at different times. What people get out of friendship is difficult to encapsulate; perhaps it is a sort of spiritual connectedness. But what happens for a person with PIMD whose ability to take on different roles in the relationship is severely compromised? Is this still a friendship if they can never initiate the contact with the “friend”. One way of looking at friendship with people with PIMD is to look at it from the view of the friend and in this case friendship seems to comprise of the following thoughts: (1) “I think this person likes being with me”, (2) “I get something out of being with this person”, and (3) “I see this person as a valuable human being”. This way of viewing a friendship is not without its problems as the person with the disability cannot directly confirm or negate the statements. In some ways it is like the dyad where one person thinks the other person is their friend, but the other person doesn’t like them at all.
I certainly have no easy answers when it comes to friendship with people with PIMD. However, I do know that spouting the importance of inclusion without even thinking of what the relationships might mean to both potential partners, and not considering the, shall I say, logistics of relationships, is doing people a disservice. For example, what does an organisation do if somebody wants to take a service user with PIMD out for dinner (do they ask the friend to get a police check, ensure that a staff member accompanies the person, say it is too risky and hope the friend goes away and doesn’t stir the pot, or do they just let the person take the house van, give the person their medication, and sweep them up with wine and spaghetti). What would different friendships look like if the person had particular care needs such as PEG feeds, needs to get out of their chair, and assistance in the bathroom? Would it mean that past staff members who are familiar with the attendant care needs would be people who would best able to spend time with the person? Or must friends only be people who don’t have disabilities, and haven’t worked with the person… Furthermore are we putting people at risk by letting them be with people who are not under the jurisdiction of our organisational policies and practices?
Clearly there are many things that need to be thought about if we are to really work towards (not just talk about) the inclusion of people with PIMD.
ps: for some research looking at friendship in the community after living in an institution, see: Bigby, C. (2008). Known well by no-one: Trends in the informal social networks of middle-aged and older people with intellectual disability five years after moving to the community. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 32, 148-157.