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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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