The Apology

When I was still working as a Behavior Specialist, I supported a woman, Sarah, who I just really couldn’t understand.  She didn’t use words to express herself and I was seeing everything she did as (that dirty word) behavior.  I couldn’t hear what she was already saying.  I only saw her diagnoses.  I only saw her behavior support plan (which was, frankly, crap.  …and I wrote it.).  I only saw the things she did which “we” didn’t like.  

I had the opportunity to attend a training which suggested we were getting it all wrong, people were already communicating all the time, and we had to do a major mea culpa and apologize for getting it wrong.  Do this and just maybe the relationship would change and we could see anew.

This was a hard pill to swallow.  I’m the professional.  I’ve gone to school.  I’ve studied the journals and the DSM-III (I’m dating myself for anyone who knows what that book is).

I decided, “What do I have to lose?”  

I went out to Sarah’s home to visit her.  She traditionally sat on the couch and would throw all the other couch cushions and pillows on the floor that she wasn’t sitting on.  In the past we’d see this as Sarah was being difficult.  On this day, I saw it for something different.  Maybe Sarah wanted her space.  Maybe Sarah wanted her own space on her own terms and have a little control in a life which constantly put controls on her.

I kneeled in front of Sarah and said, “I think I need to apologize to you.  I think I’ve been getting you wrong this entire time.  I’m sorry.  I’m sorry I wasn’t seeing you and hearing what you have been saying.”  Sarah didn’t seem to acknowledge me and didn’t visibly react to what I said.  I talked to her a bit more of what I’ve been learning and how I was going to try to do better and then said good-bye.  

A few days later, I needed to go back out to Sarah’s house to drop something off and she was in the kitchen sitting at the table when I arrived.  After a few moment, she went into the living room and I followed her to turn on the TV for her.  She sat down on the couch as usual, but this time she didn’t throw the couch cushions on the floor.

I turned on the TV for her and acknowledged that she had space for me to sit beside her and I asked her if I could do that… she didn’t move… I gingerly sat down beside her (a first for anyone to do) expecting to be pushed away, but what happened next broke me.

She reached over and took my hand in hers and began to squeeze and rub my hand.

This continued for over 20 minutes as I sat there and weeped silently and then finally whispered to her, “I’m really sorry.”  Her supporters, during this 20 minutes, would pop into the living room to see what was going on and when they would see us their eyes would get big and then they would quickly disappear.  Sarah never let anyone sit beside her.

Finally, Sarah told me she wanted space and watch TV (she reached over and touched the TV remote) and gently let go of my hand, push it away, then pushed me away.  I stood up and she removed all the cushions on the couch and settled in for the afternoon.

Everyone’s relationship with Sarah changed dramatically.  One by one in their own way they took the opportunity to say “I am sorry” … and we began to listen to Sarah differently.  We supported her differently.  Everything changed for the better for all of us with just 3 words.  …and sometimes she let us sit beside her.

More about Sarah and our changing relationship and what this means for all of us in a future writing, but for now to every person I supported… I am sorry when I got it wrong. -xo -Jessica Stover