Today is


Story 6 - At work

'There's nothing succeeds like success.'

This statement of wanting to do ‘handyman stuff’ for others gave me the cue I had been waiting for to go ahead and organise work in the community for him. I asked him if he would consider doing some jobs for an old woman with few resources and he was delighted. I put him in touch with Rose, a 'frail elderly' woman who had been introduced to me some time ago. She lives alone, and is an exceptionally artistic and articulate woman, but she suffers from rotten health. She had mentioned at that time, in a joking way, that she wished she had a young man who could help her with jobs around the place. I had been looking out for any possible opportunities to help her. I arranged for them to meet, but it took 2 weeks from setting it up to actually achieving the first visit. During this time Barry felt overwhelmed by a number of small jobs, so it seemed advisable to work through these before introducing anything else. In the meantime I had to stay in contact with Rose to ensure that her needs had not changed and to prevent any confusion arising. Rose was receptive to the idea of having someone with a brain injury come to help her and realised that it would be a two way process. She was not prejudiced and she really did need some help. It seemed important that I knew both of them and could match up their needs. She needed work to be done and he needed to do work. With her agreement we arranged that Barry could come for an hour in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon on a Monday. This was in fact a very optimistic representation of what Barry would be capable of.

It was incidental that both Barry and Rose had disabilities of different kinds. Barry was unutterably slow and Rose had a chronic fatigue syndrome. However, these incidentals had to be carefully planned around in making sure that the job could get done in a way which was comfortable for both of them. Rose could not be left hanging around past the time when she would normally take her rest, and Barry could not be hurried past a certain point. It was my job to make sure that the job got done without breaching these conditions.

On the first visit the two of them got on very well. She showed him her house and a number of the jobs that needed to be done, most of which were far too complex for him. There was so much that needs to be done in her house to make it structurally sound and I think that when she saw this tall good looking young man she began to think that he was more capable than I had painted him. I had already been through the jobs needing to be done and I steered him towards the simplest job, which was raising some bookshelves off the floor. In her shed they found a nice plank of hardwood from which he could shape some props for the bookshelves. He took it home with him and began to work on cutting it into pieces and sanding it meticulously.

I knew that kind of job which Barry was able to do and this had to take priority over all the many needs that Rose was expressing. I also knew that Rose had very few resources and that any materials that were used could not be wasted. This shaped my decision to steer them towards a job that might not have seemed like the obvious one to start with.

We went home for lunch and his sister Brenda arrived up with her bike, probably under instruction from her mother, to ask him to help her fix it. The expression on his face showed that he would have given a lot to be able to do what she was asking, but could not, because he did not have the correct size of allan key.

The need for the correct tools has been a recurring one. Barry never forgot this incident and he now has a wonderful collection of allan keys. It is possible to learn from this kind of failure, but it is a sad kind of learning.

This was extremely frustrating for him and Brenda left in disgust, she was in a hurry elsewhere. Once she left, he cursed his flatmates for being 'nice'; fretted that he had broken Freddy's jigsaw blade and said that all the handyman jobs he was doing were a 'meaningless filling in of time' which provided him with no satisfaction.

He was clearly distressed with his lack of success and he took it out on the flatmates and on myself, trying to hurt all of us in any way that he could. Everything that we were offering was phoney - 'nice', or 'meaningless', compared with the moment that had been lost with Brenda. This is one of the relationships which really matters to Barry and he desperately wanted to succeed in front of his bright younger sister. It was a place where success would have meant a smile and a pat on the back, a 'good on you Barry' and a cheerio. It might not have been mentioned much, but success might also have brought Brenda back to him, if she had a reason to come. As it was, he was confirmed in her eyes as someone with a brain injury who just taxed her patience, and who did not have anything much to offer in her busy life.

The outcome, the denouement, was a catastrophe. It was a failure. There are failures in life and it is not possible to protect anyone from their many manifestations. But it is important to think about what the failure was about. It was not just about failing to fix a bicycle wheel, there were other dimensions to it, such as the importance of the person requesting the job to Barry. He does not need anything which disconnects him from Brenda and this was a lost opportunity for him. Long after he has forgotten this particular incident I see him continue to honour his grief for the moment in the way that he has so diligently collected allan keys ever since. The point was not the learning that he did, but the fact that at some level this incident really did matter to him. He may have all the allan keys in the world at some stage, but if the learning was only about the allan keys it would be worthless. It would be ridiculous to say that this was actually a ‘success’ because he learned something. It was a real failure, in a line of failures with his sister. That was the outcome and it was sad.

The job for Rose progressed very slowly. Sanding the wood was something that he could do without guidance and so I put all my efforts in to getting him up and into the workshop. On the first day we managed to keep to the agreed times: ie in the workshop for an hour in the morning and for 2 hours in the afternoon. I needed to support him by doing other tasks which would have distracted him, for instance, there was a salad which needed to be made for the head injury society meeting that evening, and I did it on the agreement that he kept to task. He continued to work on sanding the wood over several evenings and he took a real pride in doing a good job. The legs were ready when I came back the following week.

Given the fact that Barry is very slow when he is doing things, there are only a limited number of things that he can achieve in a day. If he had to do all of his domestic chores, there is a strong likelihood that he would never achieve anything else. He therefore needed support, which went beyond prompting him to do tasks, he also needed someone to keep his life organised and on track, while he went on and did his work. It is an arrangement which is reflected in most domestic situations. It is always necessary that the maintenance work be done and it is only when the immediacy of our life support systems has been taken care of that anyone can be freed to go on and do work. There was something about the work which Barry was doing which was connecting him to the world in a way which domestic chores would never do. It was this connecting and world-making that he needed. This was not therefore undermining some precious idea of ‘independence’, which is frequently the only measure of success permitted to those with disability. We are all interdependent and there is no ‘work’ which was ever done which was not supported in some similar manner to what I was doing with Barry here.

Back at Rose's we unpacked the bookshelves together and got the radio set up (so he could have music as he worked), which took over an hour. Barry started drilling some holes on the top surface of the bottom shelf, positioning his drill very close to the upright wall and this restricted his ease of access. I only noticed what he was doing after he had made the first hole by which stage he was committed to continuing, but it was a very difficult angle to work at. I suggested that he start again and put a bit of filler in the first hole. He would not consider it. He was frustrated with the job and when we went home for lunch he turned up his music to drown out that being played by Jake. It was not pleasant and I asked him to turn it down again, which he did. He finished screwing the legs to the first set of shelves that afternoon, which involved screwing in 4 screws. He had worked for 3 hours to put in 4 screws and two legs.

Barry was beginning to show that there was no way he was going to do anything less than a perfect job. If nothing else this showed me just how much of himself was being invested in this job. It was truly as though he was creating himself with each of these little jobs, he was defining himself as someone who did a good job. Anything less than success was not going to be tolerated. This, in a man who was supposed to be almost completely devoid of motivation, or who could only be motivated by attractive leisure pursuits.

The next week he was exhausted after the head injury society camp which had been on over the weekend. We put off the visit to Rose and all that day he was slow and unreasonably irritable, again, with his flatmate. We could have gone over to Rose a couple of days later, but he needed to get a present for Brenda's birthday. He got her a few funny toys, including a stethoscope, since she was aiming to go to medical school. This took the whole afternoon and it left him feeling exhausted and full of self-doubt about whether these 'joke' presents were appropriate.

It was at this time that Barry put up the whiteboard. The success with the cd rack clearly prompted him to notice the whiteboard, which had been propped up on a chair for ages. Barry went off and this job secretly, when there was no one around, in the dark hours of the night. No one told him to do it, or how to do it.

The man who a few weeks ago had chronically left everything half finished was now finding the motivation to complete a whole job by himself, in one go. He was coming to recognise the need for success in himself and he knew how to succeed here. It illustrates in a fine way how success leads to success. The success with the cd rack, led him to notice that there was a whiteboard sitting round which needed to be put up. He could identify that need himself, because he already knew about that kind of activity. Success really tells you how to go on. It is easy to continue when you have succeeded once, and conversely it is difficult to go on when what you know is failure.

He was excruciatingly slow that morning and did not manage to get ready for work till the afternoon. Once there we discovered that one of Rose's kitchen cupboards was hanging loose on its hinges. This took priority over the bookshelves and over the course of the next 2 hours he took some of the screws out of the hinges. He had not finished when it was time for me to go home at 5pm, so I left him to clean up and walk home. My presence seemed superfluous during most of this time and I was just quietly marking scripts in the background. However my presence was enough to keep Barry focussed on the job, and prevent Rose from distracting him with small talk. They started talking as soon as I left and neither of them were able to extricate themselves. They complained to me separately afterwards about how the conversation had tired them out.

A week later Barry was again difficult to get out of bed and I seriously wondered if we would get down to Rose's that day. He had been home for the weekend and had taken the bus by himself for the first time. This had involved intense communication across the team to enable him to do it independently and the arrangements had not fully worked out. Fortunately Barry was oblivious to the complications, but I was feeling fairly tired and he responded negatively to my unspoken stress.

He could see no good reason to get the bus if he could persuade one of his parents to pick him up and he kept asking his father to come down and get him. I knew that once he was on the bus by himself that he was likely to enjoy it and this was the case. The arrangements to get him on the bus to Ashford where he would be picked up by his father were worked out in great detail.. Unfortunately, it turned out there was a misunderstanding about who was supposed to collect him once he arrived back in Rathnew and he started to walk home himself. This was fine with Barry and he was shortly picked up by his flatmate. It was a small incident but it reminded me that I was responsible for Barry’s safety and it weighed heavily on me. It was very unclear to me yet whether Barry was safe walking by himself, whether he would pay adequate heed to the traffic. The question of success became critical here, there was no room for a failure that would put Barry’s life in jeopardy.

We got to Rose's by 11am, but discovered that he had the wrong type of hinge with him. I went off quickly to Hardware Galore by myself and came back with the correct hinge within half an hour. He continued with his work, but then he placed the hinge incorrectly. The door still opened but there was a gap left between the door and the wall, which did not match with the other cupboards. Rose said that it did not matter and that it was serviceable as it was. Faced with the choice of leaving it or starting again, he opted for the latter and undid his work. The final job was perfect! Rose and I were really impressed by his determination to get it right.

The fact that he was prepared to undo the work of a couple of hours, to ensure that the door was hung correctly, gave me an inkling of just how important success was for him. It was not sufficient that I tell him that he had succeeded , or even that Rose had told him it was 'fine'. The job needed to be done right and he needed to do it right, there was no compromise possible. Praise was only meaningful if it was earned and so he ignored Rose and I when we encouraged him to bring the job to a premature close. In doing this he earned our real respect for his workmanship.

Earn v.t. A. Sax. earnian, to earn, to reap the fruit of one’s labors; O.D. erne G. ernte harvest.

Respect is something that Barry is given every day, since it would be impossible to work with him in such close proximity, in a one to one context, if he was not given respect. Respect which is given, comes from someone who is capable of doing this because of who they are. It is like unconditional positive regard, which tells far more about the person who is doing the regarding than the person being regarded. He is rarely given the opportunity to earn respect. Respect which is earned brings him into a real relationship with others. He can only be brought into this particular relationship through the medium of work or labour. You can only reap the fruit of your labour if you have earned it. The person who continually reaps what they have not sown is put into a very suspect relationship with the rest of humanity. Barry may not yet be able to earn a living, in fact he may never be able to do this, but he does need to be able to earn the respect of his fellow human beings.

The following Monday he returned to tackle the second set of bookshelves. He remembered a trick of soaping the screws which got around some of the difficulties he had with putting the screws into the previous shelves. He also drilled the holes at place on the shelf where it was more convenient to work.

I was really pleased for him but we were not exactly on the best of terms that day. We had been about to leave for Rose's when I realised that I had left the lights on in my car and had drained the battery (a not uncommon occurrence). I was fed up with myself and said words to the effect that I was making a real mess of my day. He snapped back at me and said 'no, it's my day that you are making a mess of!'. The car was easily fixed, since I was parked at the top of a hill, but it seemed that our relationship could not be so easily fixed.

It is very annoying to get things wrong, it happens to all of us, especially when we are overloaded and want everything to work smoothly. It is normal to be annoyed with ourselves in these situations and it is also normal for those close enough to be affected to feel annoyed. Signs of incompetence in others were intolerable to Barry at this time and it was as though he believed that without a brain injury one should always be able to think clearly and get things right. It is simply not true and some days it seemed as though I could get nothing right.

We had hit a low point and at lunchtime we had another disagreement about the fact that I used brown bread instead of white bread when making toasted sandwiches for his lunch. He pointed this out and I pointed out that the brown bread was already open and the white bread was not.

Barry has so many preferences for how things done, that it is difficult to know all of them. This means that one is inevitably going to break his rules and fall into disfavour because of this. The toasties were made successfully, but they failed to please because all of his preferences were not taken into account. The only proper response to this is exasperation, but it feels uncomfortable also to be unable to do anything right for someone. Barry had set up a Kafkaesque environment, full of meaningless rules which were constantly changing for no apparent reason. This must be precisely the feeling that he has had to live with since his brain injury. A feeling that success is impossible, because of things out of your control and a nameless feeling of blame attached to it.

Barry had been visiting Rose for about 6 weeks at this stage and she was now going to have a cataract operation and needed lots of peace and quiet. We left on the undertaking that he would come back again to finish off some other jobs for her. He took a picture home which needed to have a screw put into it and many weeks later, after several false starts, he returned to hang it for her.

In September Barry was concerned to hear that Rose had a leaking pipe and clearly felt some sense of responsibility to help her. The job, however, was done before he could organise to go and have a look with Brian, his new workmate. He visited her again a year later and finished another job for her, which was making a board for top her bath, which she could easily remove. It is a contact which has been maintained over time and Rose wrote him a lovely letter of thanks for the last job.

Hi, Barry the carpenter. Thanks for the truly neat bath cover. It serves its purpose very well and proves also to be a great place for putting things down on when one has to, and there's no where else to put them. ....wonderful as a seat! - to stand on to reach the top window latch and altogether makes a more organised and elegant bathroom. Lucky me! Happy autumn to you and Brian. Love and hugs, Rose.

Next page: Story 7 - the letterbox



Site Links

Home page
Methods and Ethics

Guestbook (to be enabled soon)

Brain damage stories-
Stories intro
Story 1 - The accident
Story 2 - The OT arrives
Story 3 - The CD rack
Story 4 - The troll
Story 5 - The door
Story 6 - At work
Story 7 - The letterbox
Story 8 - Employment

Occupation in Literature -
Literature intro
Being "well occupied"
The practitioner / OT
The person with brain injury

Discussion -
The need for occupation
Becoming well occupied
Ethical concerns
Occupation and neurology
Future research

Works cited

Brain injury and head injury resources

Occupational Therapy and carer resources

OT jobs

Rehab equipment

Physical rehab

Brain injury web sites

General brain injury resources

Organizations and programs

USA Brain injury association chapters

Headway branches

Brain injury Research

Brain injury support and chat

Brain injury mailing lists

Personal stories

Residential programs and similar services

Home page | Contact us | Copyright © | Privacy