• maryiantorno57

Breaking the Surface


Chris had been on my caseload for eight months and, of the hundred-odd clients assigned to me, he was one of the lowest priority cases — he had a place to stay, a program to go to, and he was able to use the bus by himself. I had helped connect him to some resources, got his disability benefits transferred to Peel Region, and sent in an application for housing that, with luck, would come through before he was eligible for an old-age home.


While Chris was low on my list of worries, there were some issues with his aunt. When he had first moved in with her family, she was a model of competence and was ready to do anything to help her nephew. But after a few months, the reality of that responsibility started to settle in on her, and the smooth veneer of concern was stripping off to reveal the warped wood underneath. At least once a week, Aunt Olga was on the phone to me with another complaint about Chris. He drank (one beer). He smoked. He used drugs (aspirin). He was skipping school (on reading week). Finally, she demanded a group home placement for Chris or she was going to send him back to the boarding house in Kingston. One of the home support workers confided in me that Chris seemed terrified of his aunt. Not that Chris would have been hard to terrify, but by then I had seen enough of Aunt Olga’s bad side to sympathize with him

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It wasn’t a joke that people in Peel could (and often did) die of old age waiting for the kind of group home placement Aunt Olga was demanding. Most people with intellectual disabilities lived with their families. But Chris didn’t have any other family to live with, so I was going to have to come up with something — and soon.


In May, we caught two strokes of luck. First, Chris’s prevocational course at the local community college included a work placement. Chris was the top of his class and his teacher was really impressed with his willingness to work. When Chris couldn’t find a placement, the teacher helped set him up with one. The supervisor was also impressed. Chris’s placement turned into a full-time job that paid enough for him to have a place of his own

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Then my friend Barbara and her husband agreed to rent Chris a basement apartment in their new home, a big brick two-story dwelling that backed onto a greenbelt where they saw deer from their bedroom windows in the mornings. I had known Barbara for ten years, since she was a single mother with a disabled daughter, Annie, struggling to pay rent on a two-bedroom apartment. This was her dream house and it felt good to see her and Annie there. We arranged for a home visit to see the place and introduce Chris

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I brought Chris over after supper, and Barbara had been baking. The kitchen smelled wonderful, and Barbara offered Chris some cookies. Her husband, Arthur, introduced himself affably before going off to work. The rest of us sat around the kitchen table. Barb’s daughter came in to check out the new guy, and the cookies. Annie was like a big cuddly puppy in human form. She loved practically everyone, and Chris seemed to really enjoy the attention from her. He warmed to Barbara as well; she was very reassuring about the living arrangements, and I explained anything I felt he didn’t understand.

The basement was set up with its own bathroom and kitchen, and it was clean and spacious. Chris’s bedroom was a big, homey family room, already furnished with a fireplace, a big-screen TV, and living room furniture that Barbara had left for him. He had his own entrance through the garage and a lock on his door. He walked around like the master of his domain, laying out his new life in his mind as he planned out his bachelor pad with his bed in the corner.

I was mentally checking Chris off as an active issue on my casefile. Job placement — done. Residential placement — done. I was doing a little victory dance in my head.

Looking back, I think I was being a bit naive.

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If you blow up a balloon underwater, you can give yourself an insane headache. I’m not recommending it — the point is that while the balloon is underwater, it can hold in a lot of air pressure because the water pressure outside the balloon equalizes it. But if you take the balloon out of the water and into the air, the outside pressure lessens and the balloon expands, and usually explodes. People who have a lot of pressure inside are the same: difficulties in their lives can distract from and “hold down” inner issues. Until, of course, their lives improve.


I could almost see Chris’s personality expanding as he moved into his new apartment. Although I didn’t know it at the time, what I was seeing was a balloon breaking the surface.


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