Sunday, February 17, 2008
It's a hard, lonely life when you're different
Feb. 15, 2008
He lives like a recluse, holed up with his snakes and lizards in his mother’s basement. Besides his brother and an outreach worker who knew him as a kid, nobody ever comes by, and that’s just fine with him: “No one can hurt me if I don’t know anyone.”
His name is Brandon and he’s 21, but that’s just a number. He’s lived way more life than that.
His story is achingly familiar to anyone working with youth on the streets. Abusive and violent childhood. Lots of problems in school. Bumped around from place to place while growing up, then handed a welfare cheque and thrust into the world at the age of 16.
He managed to hold onto an apartment for three years in spite of it all - until the landlord evicted the whole floor he lived on. Brandon couldn’t get a grip after that, and spent a miserable year on Victoria’s streets when he was 19.
He’d do just about anything not to go back - like living in his mother’s basement until he can find the money for a place where he’d maybe stand a chance of being happy. After two months of nothing, he’s at least back on disability, but it won’t be easy finding a place even so.
“There’s a lot of discrimination in rental situations,” says Brandon. “No one wants to rent to anyone under 25 if they have any options.”
He doesn’t use drugs or alcohol, but gets in fights sometimes. Outreach worker and friend Gerry Karagiannis recalls first meeting Brandon after a vicious fight between Brandon and his younger brother landed him in court.
“I developed something of a pre-emptive way of dealing with problems,” explains Brandon. “I wouldn’t be hurt if I hurt people first. It never really gets any easier not to get angry with people, so now I just don’t align myself with people anymore.”
There’s something else about Brandon that’s less tangible than his troubled childhood. Lately the doctors have taken to calling it a “non-verbal learning disorder,” but before that they used to tell Brandon he was mentally ill. A less descriptive era might have called him “different” and left it at that.
Whatever the label, it adds a whole other layer of complexity to his life - and rarely a positive one.
Take his work life, for instance. Hopelessly slow on the job, he’s got “a bit of an obsessive-compulsive thing” that often gets in his way - like the time he got bogged down at a fast-food job trying to get the lettuce exactly in the centre of each burger. “For some reason, I can’t turn a blind eye to that.”
He speaks articulately and intelligently, but can barely read. He struggles to make eye contact, and says it’s only been in the past year that he’s been able to do it at all.
The longest he’s ever held a job is three months.
“It’s discouraging to lose so many jobs consecutively. It’s hard to get up the initiative to get another one that I know I won’t keep,” says Brandon. “It’s humiliating, really.”
His dream is to own a pet store. I ask if he’d settle for working in one, but he says he tried that already, and got fired. “I’d like my own place so I could go at things in my own way.”
He’s got two pet snakes and a five-foot iguana, and there are days when they’re the only thing that keeps Brandon going: “I tell you, people won’t give THEM the time of day, either.”
Brandon appreciates that his pets never judge him. “My python is a bit of a bitter type, and I feel good that even though he’s a difficult animal to please, he likes me.”
Karagiannis works for the Child and Family Counselling Association, and officially quit working with Brandon when he turned 19. But he stayed in the young man’s life anyway. Brandon is certain he wouldn’t have gotten on disability this month without his help.
Life is not yet coming up roses, but at least it’s not quite as bad as it was. “A year ago, I was out of my mind with grief - on the street, suicidal, thinking of getting into crime for money,” Brandon notes. He’s even letting himself dream again about finding a job that lasts.
“Sometimes it’s tempting to just give up on it all and not bother, but I haven’t done that yet,” he says. “There’s got to be something I’m good at.”