I was only about 20 years old at the time, so still very young in many ways.
I remember my first day like it was yesterday.
The head counselor at the facility showed me around, introduced me to all of the patients that I would be working with, and then brought me into her office and shared each of their stories. She showed me pictures of their past, and it was very surreal listening to her.
One girl, who was my age, went to Cal Berkeley on a Softball scholarship and had a serious boyfriend. She was, by every definition, an amazing athlete and student with everything going for her. Unfortunately, she was also Bulimic, and had a horrible stroke that left her brain damaged. To this day, she still wears her softball clothes, and talks about her boyfriend, wondering if he’s coming tomorrow (He never came, ever).
A young man in his late 20’s was your classic daredevil and adrenaline-junky. He loved extreme sports and breaking the rules! One day, he was speeding on his motorcycle, which he was notorious for, and a cop tried to pull him over. Rather than stopping, though, he tried to out-race the cop, because if he got one more speeding ticket, he’d lose his license. Instead, he almost lost his life when he lost control and crashed. He was left brain damaged, paralyzed on the left side, and with very limited communication. Now, he tells everyone that he can to take the speeding ticket!
An older woman was in a bad car accident when she was only 15 years old, and it left her brain damaged. However, she is extremely aware of her situation, and lives her life “trapped in her body.” You can imagine her frustration and anger. She knows exactly what she wants to do and say, and how to do it, but her body does not cooperate with her demands very well. She wants to paint a red circle, her fingers won’t grip the paint brush, so she has to use her fingers like chopsticks, and then as she’s going in for the red paint, her arm will twitch and go into the green. She starts to paint a circle, and it turns into zig zags. She battles with resentment.
A middle-aged man who was a Heroin-addict had a stroke and was left brain-damaged, and it gave his wife a way out of the dysfunctional relationship. She took the kids and ran far, far away. I will say, though, he had an incredible sense of humor, and was always laughing and telling himself jokes. Sometimes, though, he didn’t make any sense and would just jibber-jabber. Many of his behaviors were similar to Tourettes. He also thought that his wife and kids were still at home waiting for him, and he was just hanging out with his friends here.
Another older woman was going about her day like any other day at home. Then, someone knocked on her door, and when she opened it, they shot her in the face and ran. They still have no idea who it was and why. She obviously survived, but was left brain-damaged, and had no idea she was brain-damaged. She is highly functioning, and very happy and positive, but she also has a lot of delusions.
It was A LOT to take in, and I felt so overwhelmed and depressed. The head counselor could see my emotions on my face, and then she very quickly said, “Kara – You can’t feel sorry for them!!! They don’t need your pity. They need your help. They need to know that there’s still a life to live, and that you’ll be there to help and share in that life. If you start to feel sorry for them, they’ll know it, and you will be useless to them, and I can’t have you here like that. Got it?!”
It jolted me a bit when she said this. But, it needed to be said, and as I spent more time at that clinic, I realized more and more what she meant by that.
My first week, admittedly, I felt sorry for them, and I pitied all of them and their situations. I looked at them as sorry souls, and I treated them as such. I treated them almost like babies, I was overly sweet and overly helpful, and the head counselor finally pulled me aside. Very sternly, but from a good place, she said, “Kara, remember what we talked about? You aren’t helping them right now. You are patronizing them. They don’t need your pity. If you can’t be with them as human beings, then we don’t need you here.”
It was the slap in the face I needed.
After that, I slowly but surely started to see them as the people they were. Over time, they were no longer “victims” or “sorry souls,” but actual people with their own personalities and qualities.
The motorcycle guy was very loving and outgoing, and he always like to flirt with me. Every time we sang the Beatles song, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” he made sure to sit next to me in the circle so he could hold my hand. A moment in the day that I always looked forward to. He also loved doing art activities, and enjoyed the Heroin-addicts jokes. He had a great sense of humor, but he was also very passionate about talking to teenagers and college students about speeding, and the consequences of poor actions.
The woman who was shot in the face, although she had delusions, they were thankfully happy ones. She thought the sun followed her, and was especially bright when she was especially happy. She believed that every man who talked to her was trying to flirt with her. She always wanted to make sure we were happy and well taken care of. She often asked me if I was okay, and that if I ever needed anything, she could get it for me. She was just a happy person, and you couldn’t help but be in a good mood around her.
The older woman who was in the car accident when she was a teenager, she was my hardest one. She hated me initially, but only because I was what she wanted to be…What she missed out on. I was a reminder to her of what she was taken away from.
My first week, when I was feeling sorry for all of them, she knew it, and that made her hate me even more. Because she fully understands her situation, and knows she’ll always be trapped inside her own body, having me feel sorry for her only added salt to the wound. She never wanted me to help her, and I don’t blame her.
Over time, once she saw how I changed, and how I interacted with the others, not out of pity, but out of love, she slowly started to warm up to me. It took a good 3 months, but finally, one day, she let me sit with her and paint. She accidentally knocked over one of the paint cups, and as I got up to get a paper towel, she watched me with hesitation.
The old me who pitied them would have cleaned it all up for her and got her a new cup, but instead, I handed her the paper towel and told her, “No big deal. Just wipe it up and then get a new cup. The paint is right over there. If you need any help, just let me know. I’ll finish painting this heart while you do that.”
It was as if I “passed the test” with her.
All she ever wanted was to be treated like a normal human being who is capable of simple tasks, like cleaning up a little spill. From that moment on, her and I had an awesome relationship, and it was by far one of the most rewarding experiences for me.
So…Why am I sharing all of this with you?
Well…I think a lot of times we pity each other, rather than help each other, and most of the time we don’t even realize it. Most of us are very empathetic and compassionate people, and when we see someone in a difficult situation, especially someone we care about, it’s only natural to want to feel sorry for them and help out.
BUT… As I have learned from my internship in college, there is a HUUUUGE difference between helping and pitying.
Nobody needs pity.
Everyone can use a little more love, though.
And, don’t we all appreciate it when we are treated like an adult, and not a helpless, poor little soul?!
Whenever someone comes to me with a problem, I constantly remind myself of the brain injury clinic.
Sometimes, I still falter, and will pity someone’s situation, but then I quickly remember what the head counselor told me so many years ago, and I switch gears.
No doubt, when someone initially comes to me and says that their mother just died from breast cancer, and their brother just went back to prison, and they are on the verge of an ugly divorce, I will give sympathy and prayers. I’ll be a shoulder, if need be, and a listening ear. But, then when all is said and done, I’ll help them to MOVE ON, because no matter what life throws at us, time continues to tick.
So, don’t ever take my lack of “Aw, poor baby” as a sign of a cold-heart or a lack of sympathy. When I push you, it’s not because I’m being mean or insensitive. When I hold you accountable, and not let you use your situation as an excuse, it’s not because I don’t understand or don’t care.
It’s because I DO understand, and I DO care. It’s because I want you to succeed and believe in yourself. It’s because I want to help you to remember that you are worth it, and you are capable of it.
It’s because if I enable you and pity you, I am only adding to the poison.
“The only limitations are the ones that you give yourself.”
When we pity each other, we give each other limitations. We allow the situation to define the person, rather than grow the person.
When I treated the brain injury patients like brain injury patients, they fulfilled the label with me, and there was no growth between us. That’s what the head counselor meant when she said I was useless to them if I couldn’t stop pitying them. When I finally realized there was so much more to them than just the brain injury, suddenly, they had so much more to give with me.
Pity, although coming from a good place, is actually a crippling device.
Look past the situation, and into the heart and soul of the person. If you really want to help someone, you have to be the one who sees past the wheelchair or the Down Syndrome. Your decisions to help have to be made based on what will grow them, and not based on the fact that their husband just cheated on them, or that they were just diagnosed with cancer.
As I said earlier, our intentions are obviously sweet and coming from a good heart. But, there really is a big difference between actually helping someone, and pitying them.
So, the next time you find yourself running to the rescue, make sure it’s the right kind of help!