Reading and caring

Sam Hickford reflects on how studying literature at York has impacted his work at a care home

Working at a Supported Living home has a different rhythm to an English degree course. That may go without saying – but the two are not unconnected.

Since graduating last year I have worked in a refuge for people with learning difficulties and autism, which involves interpreting the minutiae of non-verbal gestures. These gestures can be demands for me to do something, or simply sophisticated attempts to toy with me. The latter is particularly confusing when it is 5am and you are trying your best to stay awake.

My job inevitably also involves cleaning, changing sanitary pads, calming people down, as well as ensuring that “service users” (the term used for people you support) within the house are sufficiently well-fed and cleaned, often with highly specific personal care routines.

My job sometimes involves dealing with what are referred to as “behaviours”, such as when people force themselves to vomit or defecate, and so on. Dealing with such behaviours presumably comes quite naturally for those who have brought children into this world, yet, for me, these are all tasks which were not really covered in my English degree. Having memorised large volumes of Verlaine poetry has brought no particular advantage.

That said, I would argue that my degree has given me strong advantages. Studying English made me realise how arbitrary it is to categorise experience, to fit people into convenient boxes. Since literature is always partly an author’s desperate attempt to communicate, the development of tools to analyse such attempts can equip you with meaningful skills in supporting individuals with communication difficulties.

Studying English Literature
Studying English Literature: Strong advantages

It made me acutely aware that people don’t just see the world differently – they have more fundamentally different frameworks for how they perceive it.I think this is what the world of work is often like for many humanities students who don’t opt for “professional” jobs after graduating. As an English student, you’re made to feel special for your new-found powers of analysis; but afterwards, you soon find yourself thrust into a singular and all-consuming graft which makes the lofty world of academic learning now seem detached, even trivial by contrast.

A colleague has told me that it takes two years to get to know “service users” properly: I believe this process is facilitated by having a strong notion of intersubjectivity. It seems to me that English – and probably the other humanities – helps to cultivate a kind of judgement which aids the slow process of getting to know people who don’t speak and thus don’t readily express what they want, or won’t complain if they are hurt or anxious besides a nuanced range of barely-detectable behaviours.

A novel I read when I was younger which strongly relates to what I do now is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The novel begins with the narration of Benjy, a thirty-something year old man who is severely autistic.  It is soon established that Benjy is immune from the trivial conflicts and hostilities that run rampant in the family depicted: the world to Benjy is a pure collection of senses, of fleeting perceptions that can never be fully communicated to others yet are never inferior to what anyone else feels.

A more recent novel with similar ambitions is Will Self’s Umbrella, which explores the stultified yet vivid world of an elderly encephalitic patient, a woman who worked during World War I and is being treated during the 1970s. Her memories of having lived and loved in this time become ephemeral distractions from the bureaucratic confinement of Friern Mental Hospital; her longing is never quite extinguished by any drug she is prescribed.

I read Self’s book on my breaks, in fact. Literature, for which York intensified my love, has prepared me in unexpected ways for what I do: it’s provided a means of coming to terms with the sometimes challenging situations that bring me to work at 10pm each night until daybreak.