I don’t even think I have bootstraps

29 09 2011

I was a sociology major as an undergrad. It made sense to me, as I knew I was going into social work. I stand by that major, though I’ve heard many people disparage it as an easy way to get through college. Hint: everything’s easy if you don’t do any work.

Learning about society and how we function together as a unit to avoid killing and eating each other (it’s possible I just read Hunger Games) has been very helpful to me as a social worker. One professor in particular made a major impression on me, and made me think about some things that inform my practice in a different way.

This professor was old. Really old. He told us stories about growing up during the Depression. And of course, he had way more energy than any of the 20 year olds in the room. He talked about how people should work long past 65 now, because we live so much longer. He told us about his trips to South America, climbing mountains and hiking in rainforests with native people.

You’d think a tough guy like this would be pretty into that whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. (I don’t really know what that means. My boots have a fashionable and convenient side zipper.)

But he was the first person I heard say, “Some people are born on third base and grow up thinking they hit a triple.” Lots of those people were in the room, so it was a pretty cool moment.

I think we’re all familiar with this attitude when it comes to financial issues. People who think they’ve worked so hard to get where they are, and maybe they have, but who fail to recognize how lucky they were. To have parents who supported them, to have been able to go to college, to not have had to drop out to care for a sick relative.

My professor was fascinated with what he described as the American ideal–pushing through adversity. Not admitting weakness. Not admitting defeat. He told us a story about a time he almost died giving a lecture, because he decided to ignore severe abdominal pain until his appendix ruptured. The man running the event he was speaking at talked to my professor’s wife, after he had been rushed to the hospital. “Your husband’s quite a guy,” he said with admiration.

“You think so?” said his wife. “Well, I think he’s an asshole.”

I want to be friends with her.

I have to deal with this attitude from parents, teachers, and other workers all the time. Many parents have told me that they understand that their child has a mental illness. However, that is no excuse for poor behavior!

Well, it kind of is. Not that we should let it go. But you have to adjust your expectations. If we’re not going to do that, then what does a diagnosis even mean? You have ADHD, you have bipolar disorder, you have PTSD, but we’re going to act like you don’t. Hmm…

These parents always tell me that their children know right from wrong. I’m sure that they do. But the voices in their head don’t seem to. And when your brain is rushing so fast that you don’t have a minute to slow down and take in and process new information, you’re bound to make some bad decisions. We have kids evaluated and diagnosed when they’re struggling with these things so they can get treatment, so adults in their lives can be a little more patient, and so those same adults can learn what’s effective with this child’s unique ways of thinking and behaving. And yet it’s so hard to let go of the idea that clinging to those same expectations, and resisting medication and other treatments, is somehow superior.

I remember talking with a fellow student back in college, who had an IEP in high school and was entitled to extra test time. However, he was embarrassed and always refused to take it. The other girl we were talking to said, “I’m proud of you for not taking the extra time!”

1. You’re not his mom.
2. Why? Because he jeopardized his academic career for the sake of appearances? Because failing in the face of unfair standards is better than passing, if it means admitting you need help?
3. Why are you still talking. She doesn’t even go here! (Anyone? Come on.)

“If we admit that something is wrong, then we’re coddling him!” You’re right. You there, in the wheelchair! Up, now! If we give in to this desire to be pushed around everywhere, she’s never going to get up and walk.

Of course that’s ridiculous. But we say things like that all the time. To people with disabilities we can’t see, to people with histories we don’t know. They’re doing this incredibly destructive, unproductive thing. Why don’t they just stop it? I don’t know. Why don’t we work together? Simply saying, “Stop. Get yourself together. Do things this way” doesn’t make you a purveyor of tough love.

It makes you, in the words of my dear professor’s wife, an asshole.