As I stated in another story of my years working with special needs adults; a few of them managed to grab my heart more than others. Roland as I wrote previously was one; and Richard was another.
Richard was in his mid thirties when I first met him. He was nice looking, with light brown hair; an engaging smile and a mischievous look in his eyes. He was instantly likable.
Richard had a near downing accident at the age of ten years old. Because he was deprived of oxygen before being revived, he suffered permanent brain damage. He was mentally delayed; scoring levels indicating he was at the mental age level of perhaps an eight to ten year old.
He had a short attention span, could become easily frustrated and did not seem capable of comprehending dangerous situations. Most of his problems stemmed from an inability to control his temper. He would often be working on task and then suddenly and without warning; jump up and come at me with clinched fist. He would be enraged, for no apparent reason.
It could be frightening if one did not understand him and know that he simply was reliving a time in the past when he had become upset with someone. It wasn’t me he was angry with; and calming him quickly was the key to keeping him from escalating to actually striking me.
I would ask him to tell me who he was angry with. He would wrinkle his face into a look of heavy thought and then reply he had a fight with his dad. I would reassure him that his dad wasn’t there so he could calm down. Most of the time, just letting him know that what he was thinking of had happened in the past was enough to get him back to task. A moment later he would be perfectly calm and making a joke, as if nothing ever happened.
Richard came from a very dysfunctional family. His parent were good people; just inept at dealing with a son who had a disability. Fighting and cursing was the norm among his parents and their adult children. Richard had one brother in prison and the other had caused many problems within the home as well. His mom tried her best with Richard, but unfortunately she was not well equipped with a great deal of knowledge on how to help him. She took care of his physical needs well and sent home cooked meals with him to the center; and appeared to have more patience with him than other family members had.
But both parents seemed unable to cope with the scope of Richard’s emotional needs. They had their hands full with all the family drama and meager funds coming in to run the household.
It was understandable that Richard resorted to anger and violence when that was all he’d ever seen at home. If you add his disability into the equation; most of his behaviors made perfect sense.
Richard could be so charming and funny sometimes though. I used to call him Patrick Swayze because he did resemble him a bit. Richard would lift his shoulders up and grin from ear to ear. He liked being compared to Patrick.
He could also be compassionate and helpful to others at the center. Richard would push the wheelchair of a lady at the center so she could get to class on time and was very protective of her. He was always eager to help those whose physical disabilities made things difficult for them to do. He never lashed out at those unable to defend themselves. His anger seemed to be directed more toward authority figures; such as staff at the center.
Yes, he could be volatile and easily frustrated; but I couldn’t help but see the goodness in Richard. He could frustrate me at times as well. Sometimes when it was time for lunch, Richard would decide that it wasn’t time for him to eat. He would come up with an off the wall reason for not wanting to go to the lunch room.
“I’m in a different time zone than you are here at the center.”
“What does mean Richard? We are all in the same time zone here.” I’d reply.
“No, I’m from Southern Pines. That’s a different time zone and lunch is not for another hour there.”
“Richard, Southern Pines is only fifteen minutes from here. Are you trying to pull the wool over my eyes?” I’d say while laughing. I knew he believed what he was saying, but I also knew that if I argued with him he’d dig his heels in and never eat his lunch.
Richard would pull his shoulders up to his neck and nod. “Yes, I am. Is it working?” Then he would break into laughter. After I pretended to be upset about being fooled by him, he’d go on to the lunchroom to have lunch.
I learned that when dealing with Richard I had to be very creative. He would be more apt to comply with something if I gave him a choice. Sometimes he’d refuse to work and if I attempted to get him back on task, he would just become more stubborn.
So, I would say, “Ok, Richard you can work on task and get paid for it; or you can just sit there and do nothing. Of course if you choose to do nothing that means when payday comes you won’t receive a check. It’s your choice and whatever you decide is fine with me.”
Richard would sit for moment as if thinking it over and then he’d say, “I choose to work and get paid.”He would look very satisfied with himself for deciding on his own to go back to work.
One day Richard became upset with me because I had him doing a task he didn’t particularly care for. It was a step in his treatment plan that he needed to do in order to complete the training.
He got up and clinched his fist saying to me, “I want to hit you so bad right now.”
Not being at all sure I could change his mind about hitting me, I decided to use the “choice” method and see if it worked in this instance. I had no plan B, so if it failed I would wind up on the floor.
“You want to hit me Richard? Well, go ahead and hit me. But I have to warn you that once you hit me; you will be sent home for a week. You won’t be allowed to come to the center and you won’t earn any money. If you choose to sit down and not hit me you will stay here and we can forget this even happened. It’s your choice Richard.”
For several seconds I thought he was going for the first option and put his fist though my face, but I could not allow him to see any fear on my part at all. He hit his open hand with his fist a couple of times and then announced that he was going to sit down and go back to task.
I know people reading this have to wonder what I found so lovable about him; but there were so many other times that Richard could smile that big smile of his and just melt your heart. The tantrums were something I learned to deal with and they didn’t occur every day. I mention them only because it was a part of Richard’s disability and not who he was.
Richard’s mother called one day to tell me that Richard’s older brother had died in prison. A few days later they had a memorial service for their son and at that time they told Richard his brother had passed.
He appeared to handle the news well at the time. I asked him if he understood everything his parents told him. Richard said he knew he would never see his brother again because he had died.
It was almost a month later Richard came to me saying his chest hurt; and put his hand on the center of his chest. Concerned, I started asking him about the pain he felt.
“Is it a sharp pain Richard? How long has it been hurting you?”
“It’s not sharp; it aches. It started when I thought about my brother dying.” He said with a sad look.
I realized he was describing grief for his brother. His parents had his brother cremated, and Richard had not really gotten to say goodbye to him. He had no closure; no grave to visit in order to grieve as he should have. His heart was aching for the loss of his brother. My heart ached for Richard.
We sat and talked for awhile about his brother. Richard told stories about when they were kids. It seemed to help him move forward through his grief. We talked about how his brother had been ill for a long time and how his suffering ended when he died. No one had given him the opportunity to talk about how he felt. We all assumed that because he had dealt so well with the news at the time, Richard didn’t really comprehend the death of his brother. I talked with his parents after that and encouraged them to talk to Richard and allow him to talk about his brother whenever he felt the need to.
Unfortunately, less than a year later, Richard’s mom was in a serious car accident. She was sent to a hospital over an hour away from home; and Richard’s dad asked if I could take care of Richard when he went to the hospital to visit her.
Richard had a habit of walking; and by walking I mean he would go miles from his home. He had been hit by cars twice on these walks along the highway; and I was very nervous to take on such a responsibility.
I reluctantly agreed to take Richard home with me one day while his father made the trip to see his wife.
I warned Richard before we got out of the car at my house not to walk off. I told him his dad had enough to worry about without him making things worse. He said he understood, but I knew if he got the idea in his head to go walking he would do it anyway.
Getting out of the car he stated, “If I do go for a walk, the Southern Pines Police know me on a first name basis.” He laughed, and I cringed.
I tried to keep him busy, asking him to help me fix supper. He quickly got bored with that, so I told him if he wanted to go out and wash my car I’d pay him for it. He agreed to wash the car and I told him he wouldn’t get paid until it was done. I figured it would be an incentive for him to stay on the job and not walk away. I was constantly looking out the window to make sure he was still there.
He came in the kitchen a short time later to let me know he had finished washing my car and wanted his money. I went out to see what kind of job he’d done and noticed a couple of spots he’d missed.
“If you want your money Rich, you’ll have to get those spots cleaned.”
Richard didn’t appear happy that he had to go back and get the areas he’d missed. I knew that look on his face meant he was getting upset.
He picked up the hose and stood there for a minute. I wasn’t sure what he might do, and then he turned the hose on me. He drenched me with the water and I jumped back trying to compose myself.
I guess I surprised him by laughing because once I laughed, he started laughing too. I wrestled the hose from him and sprayed him over the head. Something that could have resulted in anger for Richard had I become upset; instead turned into a joke between the two of us.
He didn’t walk that day, much to my relief and everything went well. I took him home with me a couple more times after that. Each time he’d ask to wash my car and each time I ended up getting wet.
Richard’s mother however did not recover from her injuries and died a short while later. Richard was never quite the same after his mom died. He was quiet and didn’t smile as much anymore. I knew his chest must ache, but he never wanted to talk about her death and I respected his wishes.
He continued living with his dad for several years until his dad’s health began to fail and Richard was placed in a group home in another county. I suppose the thought was to place him far enough away so he couldn’t find his way back home if he took off walking. It also meant he’d be going to a different center and I’d never see him again.
I miss that smile and the way his whole face got involved when he laughed. He could be a devil and he could be an angel; but I could count on him always being Richard, the mischievous little boy in a man’s body.