Joe . . . My 17-Year Counselling Session
The background for this story begins with my search for some meaningful way of changing the lives for people who were caught in an unsuccessful life or in malfunctioning homes, environments or relationships.
I became involved in several of the sensitivity group programs that were popular at the time in hopes they would provide me with some clues. They did seem to increase the level of connection and acceptance present within a group of strangers. However, the feelings of safety and openness within the sensitivity group did not seem to be very useful, or even acceptable, with other people who had not gone through the process. In many ways, a Caribbean cruise is similar to a residential sensitivity group, except that the people on a cruise can escape from each other if they want.
I also had some unresolved thoughts after watching a National Film Board documentary about the experiences of a person (later to became the mayor of Winnipeg) who had befriended a teenager and tried (unsuccessfully) for a couple of years to integrate him into society. He gave it a good try, and at times appeared to be making progress, but it ended unsuccessfully. I felt he could have succeeded if only he hadn’t given up so soon.
Having spent a lot of my life observing children in undesirable home situations, or in unsuitable school classrooms, I realized there is a theory that provides a beginning point in understand how to help them. My extension of the psychological theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’ is that a person will become progressively more uncomfortable living in an environment that does not match his.
Suppose a generally good person is put him in jail. The ‘bad’ prison environment implies to him that he must be a ‘bad’ person because he is there and he begins to accept this as his self-image. This new self-image creates dissonance between his previous “good person” self-image and his ‘bad’ environment. In order to reduce this dissonance he can:
(a) Accept that he is a ‘bad’ person and change his thoughts and actions to become a ‘bad’ person, or
(b) He may try to change the environment by helping other prisoners and improving conditions, or change his perception of it by rationalizing his views of prison (it’s not as bad as expected, I can take courses here, etc.) to believe it is ‘good.
In any case, he will think and act in some manner to reconcile his self-image with his environment.
Children’s Aid organizations take children from bad living environments and place them into a more acceptable environment. They hope that the child will feel an inner discomfort with misbehaving in the supportive environment and will change to match the environment as a way of reducing the inner stress. I have seen occasional cases where the child’s ego is strong enough to alter the environment to justify his misbehaviors.
It is a rule of thumb in integrating children with behavioral problems into a regular class that you need a ratio of not more than 1 in 10. Otherwise, there is a real danger that the regular children will pick up the undesirable characteristics rather than the other way around. The undesirable behaviors are much more obvious and hence can easily be perceived as a major part of the environment.
I could have said all that in a much simpler manner—people will try to ‘fit in’
Enter Joe into my life. He was eighteen-years-old when I met him. He was living on his own, having left his remarried mother and their dysfunctional and disruptive home several years earlier.
I met Joe by accident while he was attending, 12 in Winnipeg at Sturgeon Creek Collegiate. He and a girl shared the rent in a rather rundown apartment. He invited me to his apartment so we could talk about volunteers for the upcoming Fringe Festival—a yearly summer event in Winnipeg of short plays written and performed by amateurs.
I sat on the sofa. It seemed to have no springs, and I sank into it up to my armpits, or so it seemed. He watched to see my reaction and I tried to pretend this was a normal thing for me. He told me later he got it for ten dollars from one of the other tenants. I think he paid too much for it.
We were talking when he got a phone call. I couldn’t help overhearing his side of the conversation (from his mother, as I later learned). To him, it seemed to be an everyday conversation with his mother. He spoke in a calm unemotional manner, but what he said shocked me.
“ Maybe you’ve forgiven him for raping my sister, but I’m not having him come here to live here with me,” he said into the phone.
I had some trouble getting my mind around what he had said. It didn’t help much when I learned the person they were talking about was his stepfather.
The counselor/psychologist in me pricked up its ears. This could be interesting person to get to know. He was obviously a person with a strong ego (I was later to learn just how strong his ego really is). It seems he had been involved in a less than ideal home environment from the moment he was born. His mother insisted on holding him and keeping him briefly after he was born—just long enough for any bonding or imprinting to take place—before giving him up for adoption.
Then she decided they should to live with his grandmother instead of adoption. After that, he went to an aunt for two months, and then to grandparents of several months before going to Winnipeg with his mother. After that he bounced around a lot—back to his aunt, at group homes, his ex-girlfriend’s parents, with intervals with his mother and his stepfather.
When I met Joe, he was struggling financially—he had just discovered that ‘rent-to-own’ still meant you needed money to pay money to pay the rent with interest— and emotionally. He had re-entered school in order to get his Grade 12. He seemed to have an inner need to make his life into something more than it was, which wasn’t setting the bar very high.
After knowing Joe for a few weeks, I got the idea that he would be perfect person to try out my ideas about how a person can be encouraged to change himself by putting him into an environment that would be in conflict with his current life and self-image (as a hopeless loser). I suggested to him that I would like to help him improve his life. His response was that he was going to adopt me. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He still sends me Father’s Day cards and we still exchange daily emails after some seventeen years.
I agreed to help him, and be a surrogate father, on condition that I would not be involved in any way with his mother, fathers (real and step), brothers and sisters. I knew that if I got involved with seven additional people like him, I would be the one to change and become like them, instead of his becoming a useful member of society like me.
My initial plan was to get him out of the apartment which he shared with a strange girl (I think anyone who punches holes in her house mate’s water bed when he is away is strange) and however many mice lived in the hole at floor level in the living room wall. He was getting social assistance payments as a high school student. A cynical person might think that he was in school just to get the money. I didn’t.
He moved into an adequately nice high-rise (top floor, of course, for the view). His mother promptly convinced him to have his younger brother come to live with him. It did help him with the higher rent.
One day, shortly after Joe and his brother got settled into the new apartment, I got a phone call from Joe.
“I’m going to buy a puppy.”
I responded with, “You can’t afford a puppy.”
“She’s had all her shots and everything. And I can make money selling her pups.”
“How much would she cost?” I asked.
“Only $450, and I can get her with really small payments.”
I decided to play tough: “You can’t afford payments on a dog. You don’t have any spare money. Besides, you’ll never be around to look after her. This is totally crazy.”
“She’s in the mall pet shop. You should go and see her. Her name is Baby.”
I took one last desperate shot before I hung up, “If you buy that dog I’ll never talk to you again.”
A few days later, I went to the pet shop, just out of curiosity. There was an empty cage in the dog section. On the outside of the cage were the handwritten words, “Her name is Baby.”
The next time I went to see Joe, I was met at the door by a tiny bundle of fur twirling around and around on the floor. I picked her up and she licked my ear. I just knew she loved me—until I noticed she did that for everyone coming into the apartment.
A year later, Baby suffered a broken leg after Joe had moved to Edmonton leaving his brother with her in the apartment. When I brought Baby to Joe’s apartment from the veterinarian, Joe’s brother didn’t answer the doorbell. We waited around, assuming he was out, and eventually ended up bringing Baby (complete with leg splint) home with me.
It was supposed to be just until her leg healed, but she stayed with us for the next 15 years. Up until that time, neither Wilma nor I would have qualified for the term, “pet people.”
Dr. Peter looked after Baby's broken leg and then some ten years later tried to fix her deteriorating leg joints. He went well beyond the call of his profession in taking X-rays, consulting with specialists and suggesting supplements like Glucosamine. He even suggested that buying it at Safeway was cheaper than from him. Her legs were a real challenge for him because they were so tiny, but he never gave up.
I have been a significant part of Joe’s life (and he of mine) for some seventeen years. We have been crazy angry at each many times, but somehow we are kindred spirits. Although we are at least a generation apart in age and from different backgrounds, we had experienced similar traumas growing up. This background meant that we understood each other on a level that didn’t require words. We may not always appear to be friends in the usual meaning of the word, but are always there for each other when the situation requires it—no matter what.
I don’t want to go into details here because he wants me to write his biography someday and I don’t want to give away all the surprises. So far, all I have is a tentative title, ‘Life Is Not a Gay Bar’.
Joe made a lot of false starts, but he has obtained his Grade 12, completed courses in film production and in office/business operation. For over two years, he owned and operated a small upscale, modern clothing store in Winnipeg—not the best market in the world because Winnipeg is not a city noted for high living and first-class spending. He has worked for talent agencies in Vancouver and is presently running a food preparation and delivery service for selected businesses in Vancouver.
Currently he is in professional therapy to help him cope with some of the problems created by his childhood and youth. It has been a seventeen-year trip, with a lot of ups and downs, but Joe is now a relatively successful, working, tax-paying member of society. He even budgets and tries to plan ahead—emphasis on the word ‘tries’.
He has changed both himself and his environment several times and in many ways, and is beginning to feel comfortable with his new life.
He may still be a work in progress, but the progress so far is impressive. Although he won’t admit it yet, he really doesn’t need me any more . . . except as a friend.
~ Talk About Stubborn ~
Joe and I were shopping for some weight equipment and kitchen utensils at The Bay. They were on different floors. We got on the elevator.
He pushed the button for the 4th floor and I pushed the one for the 3rd floor.
Me: “The weight equipment is on the 3rd floor.”
Joe: “We are going to the 4th floor first.”
The elevator stopped at the 3rd floor. I got off and held the door open for him. He ignored me and the elevator went on upwards.
We passed each other moments later. I was on the up escalator and he was on the down escalator. He waited for me on the 3rd floor . . . not because he was giving in to me; it was just easier that way.
He got to stand there while I went up, crossed over, and then came down again.
~ Gotcha ~
Me (to Anita): “Dr. Peter told me Baby should be taking Glucosamine for her joints.” Anita: “So how do you give it to her?” Me: “I open a capsule and pour out about a tenth of it and mix it into her food. Then I take the rest of it myself. I figure it would be good for my arthritis.” Anita (in horror): “What? You are taking the dog’s medicine?” Me: “No, silly. She takes my medicine—I buy it at Safeway.”
~ Like Father, Like Son ~
Ken tells this story on himself.
Ken, his wife Kathryn, and his young daughter Sydney, were leaving their friend’s engagement party in Santa Cruz. They encountered a group of knavish looking young people blocking their way.
Ken was familiar with my story about walking through groups like that so he decided, “If my dad can do it, we can do it.”
Ken put on his most stern look and they walked right through the middle of the group without incident.
Later, Ken said to us, “I realized afterwards that I might have looked more intimidating if I hadn’t been carrying Sydney’s American Girl doll under my arm.”