Avia Ustanny, Outlook Writer
Curtis, having a good laugh during the interview. - Contributed
Counsellor-cum-psychologist Curtis Sweeney leads a sweet life largely untroubled by the urgencies of his sighted peers.
Single by choice at 40 years, he tells Outlook: "Society gives a lot of pressure on us about marriage. I don't get anxieties about that."
He is anxious about very little. In his office at the Grace & Staff Community Development Foundation in downtown Kingston where he is a manager, it's hard to detect that the psychologist is affected by retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the eyes.
Sweeney rarely employs the white cane used by the visually impaired. Day to day, despite his workload and the constant interruptions, Curtis is a cool operator.
"When I am in an environment for a little while I get the feel of it and so I move around quite easily. It is like being at home. The cane is useful when I am in an unfamiliar setting," he explains.
"Vision is more than a physiological process. It is also mental and cognitive. Even if I saw, I would have to interpret it."
Sweeney has had enough time to construct a life in which sight is secondary and purposeful living more urgent.
In his teens, however, life was not so easy. His problems began with difficulty in reading words on the blackboard. One teacher flogged him for 'refusing' to read.
He was bright and his was the well-kept secret that he was losing his sight.
At age 14, while at Jamaica College, Sweeney was diagnosed as suffering from retinitis pigmentosa. Eventually, he was only able to discern shadow-like images, leaving him unable to see colours or shapes.
At school, he would find excuses for his 'clumsiness' when he bumped into furniture. But, he managed to participate in sports, having lots of friends. It was with the support of friends and family that he continued to do well in his studies.
"When I started university, my brother Beresford Sweeney did a lot of reading for me and gave me a whole lot of encouragement," Curtis Sweeney states.
In 1985, he started in accounts at GraceKennedy and continued until the time when his loss of vision no longer could be hidden. Curtis was depressed, but nevertheless determined not to give in to self-pity.
At GraceKennedy, he was then given the job of telephone operator, a role which he says he transformed into a customer service position which impressed others. He also got help from the Jamaica Society for the Blind, adjusting to the point of completing his university studies. At his workplace, the management and co-workers were a vast source of support.
Sweeney started to pursue studies in psychology and mental health because this is what he really wanted to do. He chose psychology, he says because from an early age he wanted to understand the purpose of life.
"It began in my interest in life which came out of my curiosity about death. I was also seeing people dealing with emotional issues. I wanted to understand them. People had always said to me that I give good advice and I should pursue counselling. Counselling is about guiding. I wanted to help people to heal emotionally."
With a degree in psychology under his belt, Sweeney first gained experience in counselling by volunteering. Eventually he was hired by the GraceKennedy in this capacity.
His current role involves counselling staff members at GraceKennedy Ltd. as part of the company's wellness programme; as well as residents of the surrounding community.
The psychologist gets to work as early as 7 a.m. because, he says, once he starts to see clients it is difficult to do paperwork, read emails and do reports.
By 7:30 a.m. clients are coming in - too early- but their counsellor is ready. "People have a need and you don't want to rebuff them.
"The issues are wide and varied. We serve the entire community - including students from four homework centres, the main one located in central Kingston. We also deal with parents and anyone from the community walking in.
"You tend to have issues that relate to financial distress."
Many are not able to cope financially and it leads to other issues. Some contemplate suicide. Some are stressed and become abusive towards children because they are not able to cope. There is also emotional abuse as well as harsh punishment which might be excessive.
"Sometimes you wonder if you are making an impact. But, I have had the benefit from working for many of these young people - many of them from first form. We see how interventions contribute to change. We get their report card every term and the comments by teachers and this helps us to assess them and also provide feedback get from parents themselves and also parents."
The Grace & Staff Community Development Foundation was established by GraceKennedy 27 years ago to respond to the alarming levels of poverty in communities near its offices, production plants and outlets. Curtis' responsibilities include evaluating the Foundation's programmes, developing new programmes as the needs emerge.
Sweeney says, "We do offer some micro credit and other partnerships which can address some needs. We realise there has to be tangible intervention. We also give references to micro-enterprise finance which is set up for small business assistance as well as Jamaica National and the National Commercial Bank.
Curtis enjoys his work. With a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of the West Indies and a master's degree in counselling psychology from the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology, with plans to pursue a doctorate in the field, he has already found the perfect outlet for his talents.
About the young in his programme, he says, "we work on building confidence and self esteem and make decisions on a rational basis." It's a holistic approach in which parents are involved.
Now that he has had some time to study human nature and life itself, Curtis Sweeney has come to the conclusion that "there is a divine order that I don't fully comprehend. God has created humanity and each of us has an individual role to fulfil in a drama.
"God has set the stage. Each role is important for the play to unfold and the play to make sense. I just think that I am one of the characters. In terms of finding my own purpose, I think that God has led me to helping people heal emotionally.
"Everyone is given a different set of gifts. Listening to people is what I enjoy most. God did not create everyone with the same set of skills because he wanted us to interrelate."
Sweeney, who says he is not very outgoing, spends time away from his very fulfilling job "nature watching".
"I like nature. I like the the country atmosphere, the feel the serenity. Water, waves crashing to share, waterfalls, the sounds of trees and birds.
He also loves music. "Jazz is something I really like. I occasionally find myself at Pegasus at Jazz in the Gardens. When I get home in the evenings it's one of things I do... It helps me to unwind and takes me away from stress."
He also 'watches' TV. "I watch television better now that I cannot see the images. I can follow the dialogue better than someone who is just watching. I also love a good conversation. I am also an exercise freak."
He exercises six days a week. "I do mainly squats, push-ups, stretches and. If I don't do it one morning I feel as if I have sinned."
About relationships and marriage, he comments; "I think that marriage is lifetime commitment. You want to make sure that the choice you make is the choice you want to make. I have a healthy social life.
"I also note that people try to find their happiness in relationships, which makes you dependent emotionally. I believe that I should find happiness first before involvement. When two people get together who are already happy you have a relationship, which is at a higher level. I try to be happy and it works."