I couldn’t have counted how many times I said this phrase when I worked in that psych hospital: “It’s not a choice”. With kids residing in the program, admitted with co-occurences of developmental disorders and psychiatric diagnoses, those of us who provided the direct care would reserve this phrase for the most desperate of times. That’s not to mean that it was used sparingly; desperate times were very frequent.
Even though we’ve technically closed institutions, these kids were behaviorally-institutionalized having grown up during a time when big-data prescribes the words that we use, when every diagnoses as a “best practices” approach, when autism is viewed as a specimen rather than a way of being human, where we trust text books and evidence rather than the human experience. Some of these kids had spent nearly their entire lives in group homes while others lived in a life bouncing from hospital to hospital. What these kids live and breathe are therapeutic interventions so much so that real moments of the human experience- such as a regular conversation, having an unscheduled period of time, being allowed to fail- can feel completely foreign.
But the way our systems and institutions are currently set up we risk our jobs by replacing “best practices” with human experiences. Saying “it’s not a choice” is one small drop of human experience we could give. When we were backed into corners, when the potential for violence was greater than the opportunity to use approved behavioral supports, when you needed to survive the 16-second elevator ride, when ketchup isn’t available: saying “it’s not a choice” was just enough anti-therapeutic practice to wake them out of their institutionalized daze and connect. And more often than not, it actually worked. It didn’t mean the kid felt good about it, but it meant a whole lot more.
This is not any different from how our country is operating right now. We are on spinning wheels of excuses, best-practices, data, and news articles. We have built ourselves little containers of safety where we have so much evidence to support our separation and beliefs. We’ve let systems and institutions lead us to believe that this is what we should do. We’re being way too patient waiting for a therapeutic development to supportively guide us into participating in change. We shouldn’t have to wait until we’re backed into a metaphorical corner to get involved in something.
This was always the struggle for me when I worked at the hospital. We all showed up to work every single day not knowing what would happen. If every kid was perfectly well behaved that day or if every kid went into crisis and we left with bruises, concussions, bite marks, and stitches, we had no choice. Yet the community response to this work is “oh it must be so rewarding”. My ideas around why people say this is because we understand our lives according to our roles, our policies, and our places. “That role you’re in must come with rewards” is what I hear. Nobody knows what else to say because nobody understand what’s really going on. But those kids never went into crisis because the data said so or because their diagnoses caused it. The experiences that come with being a human moves us in and out of crisis. For the kids I used to work with, the lack of sharing in their human experience limits their lives to only the people, protocols, and institutions instructed to do so.
I thought I was going to get fired once when the occupational health nurse criticized me for getting bit due to “not wearing my PPE correctly” and I asked “well have you ever worked with any of our kids before?” and when she said “no” I said “then you don’t really know what you’re talking about”. Revisiting this topic has me feeling quite angry and I begin to feel a tension in my body that I lived with every single day of the nearly 4-years I worked at that institution. This is not an anger that I need anyone to justify. It’s not an anger that I need anyone to help me find the source of. It’s not a tension that one massage therapist or friend can help ease.
We have a terrible nation-wide habit of witnessing human experiences and falling back on blame, policies, evidence-based practices, and roles to offer a response. I’m sure no one in Flint cares about your suggestions about how the Governor should have handled it differently. I’m certain no anger on the street will be tempered by your talking about how protests should be handled differently. We are running out of open space to store our containers of safety. Are you going to wait to be backed into a corner to say “it’s not a choice”?
It’s scary to speak up or to sign up to get involved in something. But I don’t think the fear comes from the unknown nor from the idea of change. I think it comes from the isolation that comes with daring to step in. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. Where there is suffering and pain, our suggestions and thoughts and prayers do nothing but restrict the container in which the suffering and pain resides. So if the actions around politics and social change today make you feel uncomfortable, realize that not getting involved actually contributes to the intensity of anger, frustration, chaos, crisis, and other happenings that make you uncomfortable. These energies can only be eased if they are shared. The more we dare to step in the less isolation becomes a part of being a part of change.
If this sounds overwhelming consider this: it’s not a matter of all in or all out. Maybe you can fully step in and become an organizer who facilitates people and marches in the streets and testifies in congress. Or maybe you simply sign and share a petition. Maybe this year you march and next year all you can do is vote. Maybe you dare to have a political conversation with a friend. Perhaps you start to listen to podcasts and read the newspaper. Maybe you stop complaining about a policy at work and start researching how to change it. Maybe you simply sit and listen to the experience of someone who has experienced pain, then listen more. It’s not a matter of all in or all out. It’s a matter of completely ignoring humanity or leaning in, even just a little bit.
I’m making a bold suggestion now. Your place of employment is not going to facilitate you toward the best way to participate in politics. No evidence or graph will be revealed to suggest the “best social change activity for you”. No chant or prayer or space held will radiate out in love and light and peace to your fellow humans. Your playing small by surrounding yourself with others who play small makes the issues and crisis of others grow exponentially. And the discomfort you feel and use as justification for staying uninvolved is nothing compared to the discomfort felt by people who don’t have a choice.
Do something. Don’t wait until you feel justified or fully supported. Don’t think that your differences from the people who are currently taking action means that you shouldn’t say something or show up. What will it take wake ourselves from our institutionalized daze and dare to be a part of the messy, chaotic, and necessary human experience.
It’s not a choice.