Self-disclosed

Part of being a therapist is being absolutely elastic. Clients come in with different motivations, some of them outwardly stated and some silent and under the surface. They are paying for a service (or sometimes their insurance, or some benefactor is paying for them) and they want to receive that service in a unique way. The most difficult part of the job is knowing how to meet that for each person. This can wind up leaving me feeling like I am auditioning over and over for people, trying to convince clients that I’m a valuable practitioner, who is worth their time and money. It can be an uncomfortable reality in my field. A lot of clients want a particular result without having to put much effort in. It can be exhausting.

I often meet new clients with some sort of introduction that can prove my worth. “Hi, I’m Chad. I’ve been doing therapy for this many years, and I specialize in these types of services. I try to utilize an approach that meets clients where they are, validates their pain, and also pushes them into positive growth, but this can often take time. The therapeutic relationship forms over a period of weeks. I’m here for you. Now tell me what brings you in?”

I like to think that I’m an effective therapist in most situations, and I think most of my clients would agree. I continually ask myself what my role in a given situation is, and in these situations I have to remind myself that my job is to be the therapist my client needs me to be during the time that I’m with them. They live their entire lives before and after our sessions, and there are no quick solutions. I have to listen, be attentive and consistent, and push hard, but not too hard.

I’ve had a number of clients complain about me over the years. These are isolated experiences, but they do happen. And I’m human, so every time, the negative feedback leaves me sad, frustrated, self-critical, or vulnerable.

self

“I felt you weren’t listening.”

“You were too tough on me.”

“You weren’t tough enough on me.”

“I told you I was suicidal and you didn’t take me seriously.”

“You should have realized I was suicidal even though I didn’t say anything.”

“You were too critical of my life choices.”

“You told my wife to find a safe place for the night after I hit her, but you didn’t even hear my side of the story.”

“You aren’t competent enough in _____.”

“You shared too much about yourself.”

“You are too closed off.”

And on and on.

On days where I see many clients in a row, I feel different parts of myself being challenged each time. Some need a coach, some need a best friend, some need a kid brother, some need a confidant, some need an emotional sponge, and some need a parent. Clients may come in and willfully withhold information, testing to see if I can sense that they are hiding something. They may come in aggressive and take out that aggression on me, their nearest target. They may come in silent, or sleepy, or in pain, and expect comfort, or nurturance, or challenge. And they expect the therapist to be fully present and adaptable to those needs, spoken or unspoken, no matter what the therapist is going through personally. (And trust me, therapists get headaches, and get sad, and have family problems, and…)

On top of that, the therapist has to be able to manage time. Sessions last for fifty minutes. Clients need a balance of reporting HOW they are doing, while being kept on a continuum of working toward their goals. (And some clients have VERY specific goals, while others have NO goals).

Most clients expect some kind of therapist who has life experience with struggle. They want to know their therapist has an understanding of depression, and anxiety, and addiction, somewhere in their personal lives, but they also don’t want the therapists to have ANY problems currently. And so self-disclosure becomes necessary. I use self-disclosure sporadically with clients. I use it to demonstrate understanding of a particular issue, to create a bit of a personal bond with a client, or to increase empathy between us. Self-disclosure is expected by most, if not all, clients, at least to a degree, but it has to be brief while also being frequent.

These interactions with clients get extremely complicated given three basic facts: 1. I am a human, who has human problems and human emotions. 2. I genuinely care about my clients, each and every one of them, even when they get on my nerves. 3. I have feelings, and I won’t always do everything right, even when expected to.

A few examples of self-disclosure follow.

“I know what that feels like. Before I came out of the closet, I went through a period of deep depression. It can be so hard to do the work it takes to get out of it, but it is so worth it. It’s the difference between hope and despair. What do you think would help you move forward?”

Or “I hear you! Being in a relationship is so hard! My partner and I fight over the stupidest things sometimes, and we see things completely differently. Communication means compromise, though. Meeting in the middle. The other day we argued about ___, and then we got through it by ___. Tell me about your last fight.”

Or “Maybe taking a break from church is a good idea for a while. You are talking about how conflicted you feel when you attend every week. I wouldn’t recommend quitting all together, but taking a few weeks off so you can get some clarity. When I was in my faith crisis years ago, I needed room to breathe, and it helped immensely.”

Self-disclosure in therapy can become tricky. It builds bonds, but those bonds have to be kept within certain boundaries. The client can’t feel like the therapist is over- or under-sharing. There needs to be a friendship without the two being friends. Co-dependency can form, as can romantic attraction, or emotional distance, or overstepping bounds. In fact, because these are human interactions, not only can they happen, but they will happen, and then they have to be managed along the way.

After 16 years in this field, I’ve learned a few things, but above all else, I’ve learned that I have to be organic. My job requires me to be knowledgeable, competent, kind, and consistent, to manage time and goals, to be accepting of everyone, to be both soft and hard in approach, to keep clear boundaries, to be human, and to be adaptable. And despite all of that, I have to realize that I’m human, that I’ll make mistakes, that I can’t help everyone always, and I certainly can’t please everyone always. I also need to know that it’s okay to say sorry, to receive criticism, and to trust myself all while doing my best to help those in front of me.

I love helping others, which is why I do what I do. It’s a calling. But it is also a job, and just a job. And I have to leave work at work and then go home. And so, like every other day, I’ll do my very best, one client, one hour at a time.

Advertisements

Ghost of Christmas Past

12246995_10156319315110061_8330321367475760310_n

During my social work education in college, I took several classes that focused on tools related to understanding complicated families. One of those tools is a genogram. Squares represented men, circles were used for women. Lines connected romantic relationships, and little dashes meant children. An X over a person represented death, a double line through a relationship represented divorce. I’ve used genograms with hundreds of clients over the years now. Some families look clean and organized on paper: father, mother, brother, sister.

My family genogram ended up looking like a massive printer malfunction, or like someone dropped a pizza on the floor. It was rampant with divorces and remarriages, couples who had kids that were his hers and theirs, and adoptions. If I could add slashes and dashes for prison sentences, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, faith crises and drug addictions, well, we’d have Picasso’s Starry Starry night in family tree format. Beautiful, but far too much to take in one glance.

But each little square and circle on that paper represent a human fixed in time, someone with experiences, heartbreaks, setbacks and successes. And each of those people, most of them related to me by blood, have their own changing stories, their own epics. For most, the endings remain unwritten. But even the youngest of my siblings is in her late 30s now, so there is a lot of history to draw upon.

And that takes us to 1985.

Back then, my family was my entire world, that and religion. We have one family Christmas video preserved now. It’s beloved to me. It was made in December, 1985, when I was newly 7 years old. I was the little brother, the sixth of seven children. Back then, Mom and Dad were still married, if unhappily. My little sister Sheri was three, and she had thin yellow hair that grew down past her waistline. (Many years later, Sheri and I would be the ones who came out of the closet). And all of the older kids were there, ranging from 11 to 20 in age at the time. Grandma and Grandpa were there, my mom’s parents, and my oldest sister’s boyfriend. The video shows us all around the Christmas tree, singing songs, laughing, performing special talents for each other, opening gifts. My mom and sister Kara played the nose harps as a joke, someone did a piano solo. We each took a day of Christmas and sang all twelve verses in little one-line solos. The camera pans around the room as we each share what we are thankful for. At one point in the video, I take out my recorder from school and I play a carol for the family, not actually playing the instrument but more realistically just blowing notes through it, generating the sound with my voice and sounding like an eerie robot. Later in the video, I ask if I can lead the family in a song. I stand in the center of the room, right in front of the camera, and I lead the music, just like I’ve seen Mom do in church a thousand times, except I forget to bend my elbow. I lead on the right cadence with my wrist hinging in every direction as my family laughs at me, and at the time I didn’t understand what was so funny. I was beaming. Family, music about Jesus, Christmas. It was perfect. I’m smiling from ear to ear.

That was over 30 years ago. 33 Christmases ago, to be exact. That realization startles me. And in another blink of an eye, it will be 30 years from now and I’ll be seventy and my children will be men.

But what if I could go back? If I could time-travel, step back into that room as a grown man and just watch it all as it happened… I wouldn’t be able to experience the family just then, in the present like that. I have too much perspective for that. I’d see everything that lies ahead for each person in that room as I watched them. If I wanted to, I could tell Grandma and Grandpa the days they die on. I could tell Mom that she only had to put up with my dad’s anger and depression for five more years before she would finally choose to leave him. But then I’d also have to tell her that her next husband would be worse, he would use fists and control and insults and profanity to terrorize her for a few years. But then, I could tell her, then she’d meet the man of her dreams. She’d be 60 by then, but he would make her so happy for the rest of her life. I could tell my dad that he would never really change, that in 30 years he would be nearly 80 and still sad and quiet and angry and morose. I could look him in the eye and tell him how I felt about his depression and the way it ruined him, and about the impact it had on me.

Would I change anything if I could? Would I want to? Would I warn them about their futures? Would I grab my oldest sister in a hug and tell her that she wouldn’t be able to have children, but that she would finally choose to adopt three when she was in her mid-40s, and that it was definitely not going to be easy after that? Would I tell my second sister that she would meet the love of her life at age 18 and they would go on to have six children together, but also tell her that this picture perfect world would not be easy, that it would be full of health struggles and financial burdens? Would I warn my only brother to stop touching me in our bedroom when the doors were closed tight and no one could see? Would I tell him to stay off the drugs and to change his ways before his three marriages, his criminal charges, his domestic violence issues, his animal cruelty issues? Would I tell him that he would father three incredible children, and that all three of them would turn out great not because of him but in spite of him? Would I grasp my middle sister, Kara, and tell her that she’d have to put up with 15 years of two terrible marriages so that she could have her four children, but that if she could just put up with the abuse, drugs, and anger from her first two husbands, she would finally meet the man who would make her happy? Would I tell her that her kids would add up to seven before she was done, and that she’d have her youngest child around the same time she became a grandmother? Would I warn the sister just above me in age to never start smoking, never start drinking, as those habits would dominate the rest of her life?

I love all of my family, of course, but when I watch this old video, I see Sheri and I the most. Sheri was the baby of the family, the quiet, introverted, and obsessive little girl would grow up to be a kind, loving, incredible woman. But first she’d have to get through her boy clothes wearing and no makeup high school years, and then brave coming out of the closet in her early 20s, and it would not go well at first. If I could change things, I’d want her to do it early, to not wait until she was in her 20s. I’d want her to save herself the years of religious indoctrination, to not waste a single moment thinking she was anything but amazing. Maybe instead I would just reassure her without changing events. She has a future, I would tell her, one with a wife, a full-ride college scholarship, a life full of opportunities. I’d tell her that in many ways she would grow up to be my greatest example, despite being younger than me.

And then I look at me. If forty-year old me could go back in time and spend an afternoon with seven-year old me… my heart breaks just thinking about it. I have a son that size, just 7 years old. He’s so small. He watches the world around him with hope and wonder, and he sees the best in everyone. Someone being a bully just breaks his heart. He has so much to learn. I see him in 7-year old me. I’d wrap little me up in a giant bear hug, and I would ask me how I was feeling. I would ask, and I would listen. I feel like no one ever asked me back then. I would ask the questions no one was asking me then. How do you feel about your dad’s sadness? Do you like church, do you believe in it, what do you like about it and what don’t you? Do you know it’s okay to have doubts? I’d ask what was happening behind those closed bedroom doors, and tell him that that isn’t okay for someone, anyone, to touch him like that, and I’d encourage him to speak up and I would tell him I was there to protect him. And because he would be too young to understand, I would try to find a way to tell him how my life has gone. I would tell him that gay people are normal, and that anyone who tells him that he is broken or an abomination or that he can be cured or that he should just ignore it and hope that it goes away, that those people are wrong even if they don’t mean to be. Believing those things would take some of his best years away from him. At worst, those people are big homophobic meanies, and at best they are just misinformed. I would tell him to come out, early and to the right people, and that he should spend his adolescence being real, learning how to love himself and take care of himself, learning how to fall in love and make friends and how to dream big. I’d tell him to love church but recognize that it is flawed and that it doesn’t have all the answers, so he should keep the good and let go of the rest. I’d tell him to eat well, to exercise, to find healthy outlets for his emotions. I’d tell him to not waste two years in missionary service, that he’ll regret it later. I’d tell him he is beautiful just the way he is, all the parts of him, the compassionate and the creative, the social worker and the storyteller, the singer and the quiet thinker. I’d tell him to not be so lonely in his 20s, to not wait so long to kiss, to hold hands, to fall in love, to have sex. I’d tell him to never compromise and marry a woman just because he believed it was the only possibility for him, because both he and she would end up hurt.

But then, I’d take it all back. I’d regret every word. He’s 7, and telling him all of that would put far too much weight on his shoulders (and goddamnit, he was carrying too much weight as it was). If I told him all of that, I’d want to run screaming into a corner, because if he changed anything, If he didn’t spend those years thinking he was broken, if he never served a mission, never learned to believe God hated him, never married a woman… that if he came out of the closet even six months earlier, than his two sons wouldn’t exist. And they have to exist. The world can’t BE without them.

Instead, I’d have to tell him to be strong. To hold on. To know that his suffering in the long run would pay off, because he would eventually come out, he would eventually find love, he would eventually learn to love himself. He would be 32 when it finally happened, so he only had 25 years to be depressed, then he could learn to live. And in coming out, he’d break some hearts, he’d have to redefine everything, and he would have to navigate a new life with two beautiful little boys, and it was going to be so hard for a while but it would be so worth it because those little boys would be the lights of his entire world, and he would learn how to see himself as a light as well. And I’d tell him that the greatest payoff of all of this, all the years he spent hurting, is that he would raise his sons to have all of the things he never had.

I can’t change then. But I can change now. I can give my sons what I wish I could go back and give to me then. I can ask questions and listen to their answers. I can talk about hard things. I can teach them about nutrition and exercise, about compassion and kindness and integrity. I can teach them to love themselves, to follow their dreams. I can teach them about taking care of the planet, being kind to animals, and reaching out to the underdog, the outcast, the misfit. I can teach them to be themselves, to love themselves, and to follow their dreams. And if I can do all of that for them, then I don’t need to change the past.

Because someday, 30 years from now, perhaps my boys will look back to this time in 2018 and wonder what could be different. Maybe they would choose to come back and give warnings about dire future events, or give hints to themselves about how they can have happier lives if they make different choices. But my greatest wish would be for them to look back to now, right now, and see it as one happy Christmas in a long life full of happy Christmases, with nothing they would want to change.

Seattle Part 6: the HMO

October, 2014

On my first day, it took me nearly an hour to get to my new job, though it was only about 8 miles distance from my residence. I had to drive down a long, narrow, busy Seattle street through traffic and stoplights, then get on a congested freeway. Traffic moved very slowly across the lake, and there was no other way to get there.

I worked on the top floor of a medical clinic, the local face of a busy HMO (Health Maintenance Organization). The mental health clinic employed around ten therapists, and we were all kept significantly busy. Clients who held a particular insurance were given good rates to see a doctor or a counselor at the HMO, and they were charged a lot of out-of-pocket expenses to see anyone else, thus we always had a long list of people waiting to be seen by a provider. Someone might call in in some sort of crisis and then not be able to see a counselor for six weeks afterward, based on current openings.

I had worked at community health centers before, so I understood the medical model of therapy. I was a clinical social worker, or LCSW, meaning I could get higher than standard reimbursement rates through various insurances, including Medicare and Medicaid, and the company seemed happy to have me there. But this place worked at a much higher pace than anything I had ever experienced before.

First of all, consider therapy itself. A counseling session requires the therapist’s all. There can be no distractions, no phones or music or computers. It’s just the therapist and the patient. There can’t be errant thoughts, or outside stressors, or headaches, or upset stomachs, or sleepiness. The therapist can’t yawn, or stretch, or eat a snack. The client requires one hundred per cent of the therapist’s focus, as well as their clear memories of past therapy sessions, like names of loved ones and therapeutic goals. On top of that, therapists are often dealing with clients who have extreme trauma issues. They hear stories about combat, suicide, rape, abuse, grief, and pain. And when one client leaves, the next is generally waiting, and the therapist can’t still be thinking about the first or she won’t be able to focus on the second.

Doing three or four therapy sessions in a row requires a tremendous effort; doing seven or eight becomes downright exhausting if not impossible. The HMO required more. And doing that day after day, well, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In standard clinics, even busy ones, I became accustomed to doing four therapy sessions, having an hour lunch, then doing three more, with the last hour of the day being reserved for case and progress notes, treatment plans, and correspondence. It was already at a taxing schedule.

But at the HMO, the expectations were much higher. They had competitive wages (about 45 dollars per hour, consistently, on salary) and a great benefits package. But they had their therapists on a very rigid schedule, seeing a patient basically every forty minutes with no time for case notes built in.

A standard schedule might go like this, for one day:

8 am: ten minute staff check-in

8:15: first patient (let’s say an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s whose husband just died)

9: second patient (a teenage girl who recently attempted suicide)

9:45 third patient (a refugee worried about her loved ones in her home country)

10:30: fourth patient (a couple going through extreme marital issues)

11:15: fifth patient (a veteran struggling with PTSD issues)

12: thirty minutes for lunch

12:30: sixth patient (a single mother of four processing stress)

1:15: seventh patient (a woman with a new baby, struggling with postpartum)

2: eighth patient (a mother processing stress over her son coming out of the closet)

2:45: ninth patient (a man referred by his boss for losing his temper at work)

3:30: tenth patient (a ten-year old boy whose parents recently divorced)

4:15: eleventh patient (a woman with borderline personality disorder, recently out of the state hospital following a suicide attempt).

Then, after that, once your notes were finished, you could go home for the day. Every other week or so, there would be a staff meeting of some kind. And every second or third day, a client might cancel or not show up, giving a chance to catch up. But that many patients per day, every day, four days per week, generally meant between 36 and 45 people seen per week. Sessions had to be shorter and more goal-directed, and a failure to adhere to the schedule meant knocking multiple clients back. If a client came in in crisis, very little could be done to manage it without having to cancel another session afterwards completely, and openings after that became hard to find.

I came into the job with boundless enthusiasm. The team of people I worked with were amazing, funny, friendly, and supportive. The agency had great diversity representation, several gay therapists, and a good camaraderie. But as I finished my first week of work, beaten down, grey, and bitter, I began to realize how tired everyone was. It was like working in an emergency room, without breaks, day after day, every day. With an hour’s drive each way.

In Utah, my therapy work had almost exclusively been with LGBT people who were struggling to align their sexuality with their Mormonism. Here, I was seeing people from every walk of life, all struggling with their own sets of problems. The word Mormon wasn’t being brought up anymore, but there was constant depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, and emotional pain. And within two weeks, I found myself unable to offer my client’s my all any longer. Instead of being an incredible therapist, I was becoming a mediocre one, simply to survive the rigorous page.

And with the reality of the new job settling in, Seattle didn’t feel quite so magical. It felt wearying, and expensive. Some cracks in the foundation of my dream life began to show.

And every night, there was the phone call to my sons, who remained far away, and who I missed very, very much.

the Licensing Board

FBI

“Hi, Chad, I’m Fred Hill, from the FBI.”

I shook the agent’s hand, confused. “O-kay, Mr. Hill, how can I help you?”

“Well, first, why don’t you take a seat.”

He indicated a hard-back chair across the table from him. We were in a conference room at my workplace at the Department of Children and Family Services, where I had been working for the past year in my first post-college job after getting my Masters degree in Social Work. It was an incredibly stressful job. I was living in north Idaho and being paid minimally to work in an extremely high stress environment, trying hard to get children reunited with the birth parents they had been taken from for one reason or another. I was constantly stressed out and losing sleep, and could feel my hair going prematurely grey. In my capacity as a DCFS worker, I had met with policemen, judges, attorneys, guardians, parents, teachers, therapists, medical professionals, and probation and parole officers in this room, but this was the first time I’d met an FBI agent. I automatically assumed he was here regarding one of the teenage kids I represented for the state. A few of them had a penchant for getting into major trouble from time to time.

“Chad, it has come to my attention that you recently took a licensing exam for your professional licensure with the state of Idaho, is that correct?”

I furrowed my brow in confusion. “Yes. About a month ago. I barely passed the exam. I got a 72, the passing score being 70. I’d taken the exam once previously and didn’t pass, getting a 68. ”

The idea of the exam itself still put giant knots in my stomach. It cost hundreds of dollars and was a four hour test. I’d had a 3.9 GPA in college, yet this impossible exam with its subjective and misleading questions filled me with anxiety. Not passing it meant waiting months to take it again, paying full price each time, and it directly influenced my ability to be hired. It was like the Bar exam for attorneys, except much less stressful and for social workers.

“Yes, I had those facts already.” The agent consulted some notes, then looked up. “It appears you are being charged with potentially undermining the integrity of the exam itself. Pardon me, not charged. Accused.”

My heart started thudding. “Accused of undermining–I’m sorry, what?”

“It seems you might have cheated to pass the test.” His eyes were on mine, searching. Only later would I realize that he was watching closely for my reaction to his accusation, seeing if I looked guilty or not.

I was flabbergasted. “What are you talking about? I barely passed it!”

The agent explained that there were allegations by the testing center that I had compromised sensitive testing materials. The exam had been held by an independent testing center in Spokane, Washington, at the local community college. I had had to sign up weeks in advance. On the day of the test, I’d arrived early, checked in all of my things, and been shown into the testing room where it was just me and a computer, with four hours to answer the multiple choice questions. During the test, I was given two sheets of scratch paper and a pen, and those were the only tools I was allowed to use. I’d been allowed one ten minute break during the test. During the long, anxiety-ridden test, I had made random notes of words and numbers on the scratch paper, and during the break, I’d placed those random scribblings in my pocket while I’d gone to the restroom. I’d been out of the room approximately seven minutes.

“Upon reviewing the video footage of your test, we noticed that you removed the papers from the room. I was brought in to look at the results and determine if you did or did not cheat. I represent the testing agency in this region.”

My head was pounding with stress and confusion. “Wait, my random scribbles on a page–in the bathroom–how would I have cheated?”

He shrugged. “Maybe you showed the notes to a friend. Maybe you had a fax machine or a cell phone ready.”

“That’s ridiculous! Every exam has randomly assigned questions in a random order! How would I have possibly cheated! What good would those scribblings do anyone?”

“Mr. Anderson, it was against the rules to remove those papers from the room itself.”

“I just went to the bathroom!”

“Yet you removed those papers. Did you or did you not know it was against the rules?”

“I–sure, I guess so. But I wasn’t thinking about that then. I had to pee, and I was full of anxiety. How would I have helped anyone cheat?”

The agent’s voice lowered and he asked me several more questions. He told me he would need a written statement from me, and stated that I might wish to consult with an attorney first. I told him that one was absolutely unnecessary, and filled out a lengthy statement right then. Weeks later, the agent told me that my candor and unwavering statements confirmed to him that I wasn’t suspicious and helped him believe my story that nothing illegal had happened. I’d made a mistake in following rules, but that he believed it was accidental.

Two weeks after his visit, I lost my job. It was illegal for the state to keep me employed without a license. Tw months after that, the state board of social workers met to review my case and, determining I had done nothing wrong, finally issued my professional license. Ultimately, this series of events left me briefly unemployed, and then finally hired by a different agency as a therapist, an entirely different career track than the one I had been on, and one that I found paid better and was intensely less stressful.

That was 2005. It’s now 2017, and I’ve been operating as a fully licensed professional for over 12 years. As part of my professional responsibilities, I supervise a group of recently graduated social workers who are preparing to take their licensing exams. At that time in my life, that was the scariest thing that had ever happened to me. Now, this story gives me one hell of a cautionary tale to tell.

Repressed Memories

Brain.jpg

“So I have this client who thinks that something might have happened to her when she was a kid. She wonders if she might have been abused or something, but she doesn’t have any specific memories.”

I nodded. “Okay, and is that something you are exploring in therapy?”

The clinician I was supervising tapped his pen against the pad of paper, collecting his thoughts. “I’ve been looking into it some. If there are repressed memories, it seems there are a number of ways to discover them and heal from them. Hypnosis can work, dream journals seem to help, regular meditation. I’m just not sure that I’m all that equipped to help her. I’m brand new in this field.”

“The operative word in your previous paragraph? If.”

I watched him write the word IF on his paper. “If. If there are repressed memories.”

“Right. She doesn’t know if there are or not. If there are repressed memories then hypnosis and those other methods might help. If there aren’t?”

“Then there wouldn’t necessarily be anything there. Okay, interesting.”

I let him collect his thoughts, then began asking questions. “So the first thing to wonder, why does she think she might have repressed memories?”

He smiled, enthusiastic. “I actually asked her that question. She had a decent childhood, so far as she remembers, but some traumatic stuff happened to her later on. Now she is realizing there are blank patches in her childhood memories, so that leads her to wonder if something bad happened and her subconscious mind blanked it out.”

“Okay, good job exploring that with her. There certainly could be repressed memories. In times of trauma, for adults or kids but particularly for kids, the brain can enter a mode where the person shuts down for a while or where they kind of leave their own body in order to survive. There are also times when the brain can hide or omit memories from the consciousness as they would be too disturbing to the person. When those memories show up, it can be in the form of flashbacks or panic attacks, and it usually happens after something triggers the trauma memories, or, ironically, the memories can show up during times of safety, when everything feels comfortable and okay for once so the memories are able to finally come to the surface.

“But the key here is she doesn’t know if she has repressed memories. She might and she might not. She’s simply wondering at this point if there might be. During the 1990s, there was a lot of repressed memories topics showing up on talk shows and soap operas, and suddenly everyone was coming forward as having repressed memories. It became kind of a craze. But wondering if something bad might have happened in childhood, or even wondering if more memories should be there where there aren’t any, that doesn’t mean there is any evidence of repression.

“Of course, it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t.”

The clinician clicked his pen in frustration. “So what do I tell her to do?”

I smiled, knowing this would annoy him. “What’s the first question we always ask ourselves?”

He rolled his eyes. “‘What is my role here?'”

“And your role in this case?”

“Is as her therapist.”

“So what is your job regarding this?”

“My job is to help her meet her goals. We are working on getting through depression and PTSD.”

“Right. So your job is to help her talk about it. Which you are already doing. Help her talk about her trauma, about why she thinks she might have oppressed memories, about her actual childhood memories. Then explore with her the options of other treatment methods if she feels they can help. There is hypnosis, there are mindfulness groups, there are dream journals. All of those take effort, time, and money, and she can pursue any of them that she wants to. But regardless, your job is to be there with her, week to week, whenever she is in front of you and needs help.”

“Okay, right, but are repressed memories an actual thing? Is that something you have come across?”

I moved my tongue along the inside of my cheek for a moment, thinking of the best way to answer. “Well, yeah. But it isn’t as simple as all that. Trauma can impact a person in a myriad of ways. It can show up as anxiety, as depression, as apathy. It can result in withdrawing from relationships, in sexual promiscuity, or in crippling fear. We can research trauma for years, but we can never have a clear mapped path that shows its results on a particular person. Even if we understand how a trauma effects someone, that effect can change with age or time or stress. Someone can live with trauma unseen for years and then have it show up much later in life.

“Here, I’ll use a personal example. When I was a kid, I went through a period of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. For years, I didn’t understand how serious that was. As a kid, I also knew I was different from other kids, but didn’t know what that meant. As an adolescent, when I began to realize I was attracted to boys and not girls, I didn’t have any context to understand this, so in the beginning I automatically assumed that the abuse was causing the attractions, when in fact there were no direct correlations.

“When I was 20, and on my Mormon mission, I hit a slump of pretty low depression. Life was very much routine. I was mugged and knocked unconscious one day, which was its own separate trauma. But something about that particular incident seemed to knock something loose, pun intended. I began getting flashbacks after that back to the abuse from when I was a kid. Full on trauma flashbacks. Like in my brain I was the young kid for a while, then I would come back into my own adult skin. I wrote down everything that was happening, in detail, to get it out of my system, and after a couple of weeks, the flashbacks went away.

“So using that example, we can see the impact of trauma on development, and we could run down the list of trauma symptoms. Yet those symptoms showed up differently in childhood and adolescence than they did in adulthood. And a separate trauma caused me to have flashbacks of my childhood trauma.”

The clinician was scribbling notes. “So would you call those flashbacks that you experienced repressed memories?”

“I wouldn’t, actually. But some could. They were memories that, for whatever reason, I had to relive in order to move on. And they were repressed. But they weren’t forgotten, or omitted by my subconscious. I had no sense that parts of my childhood were missing, yet they were also memories that I avoided completely because they caused me discomfort.”

“Okay, okay.” He underlined something on his paper. “I get it. It’s complicated. We can study the topic, but it’s gonna show up for the individual person in different ways at different times. And my job is to be there with them, talk it over, help them meet their goals and explore their options.”

“Right.”

He gave a deep sigh. “What we do isn’t easy, is it?”

“It most certainly isn’t. But we get to help people who ask for help. And that makes it worth it.”

EMDR

EMDR.jpg

“Chad, listen, I’m thinking of becoming certified in EMDR therapy. What do you think about that?”

I looked out across the room full of new social workers I was supervising and nodded, thoughtfully. “I think it’s a great idea. Why do you want to?”

“Well, it’s new and people seem excited about it. It seems to be getting good results for a lot of people.” Several of the others agreed, showing new interest in a potential certification. “What do you think about it?”

I felt a bit nostalgic, remembering when EMDR had first been introduced in a class I was taking back at Boise State University in 2003. My teacher back then, an eccentric woman named Alberta, had sung its praises.

“EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” she’d explained as I’d taken notes. “It was developed by Francine Shapiro. Basically, after a human undergoes trauma, there are altered memories and pathways in the brain that form, and the trauma memories then cause symptoms to show forth generally in the form of PTSD, which can include anxiety, depression, flashbacks, depersonalization and derealization, anger, unhealthy relationships, and on and on. EMDR is designed to alter and heal the pathways in the brain that were negatively impacted by the trauma.”

She went into much more detail before describing how EMDR itself would work. Basically, in a period of therapy sessions, the survivor of trauma would sit before a trained therapist and discuss specific trauma memories and events in a safe environment. Then, wearing headphones that pulsed soothing sounds from left ear to right ear, or left brain to right brain, the therapist would do trauma recovery work while tapping the left and right sides of the survivor’s body, and have them alter the disturbing memories to more safe spaces, allowing the trauma symptoms and triggers to diminish over time. While the therapy itself was highly controversial in some spaces, it had proven extremely effective among those who had utilized EMDR for healing, with long term healing results reported and great reductions in their PTSD symptoms.

I turned back to the group. “What do I think about it? I think it can be very helpful. There are lots of studies that show it’s valid.”

One of the group members smiled. “I sense a but coming.”

“But… I think it is like any kind of therapy. It’s going to be super-effective with those who utilize it well and who are ready for it. It’s like the gym or nutrition analogy. You can develop the knowledge on how to work out and eat right, and even show up at the gym, but that doesn’t mean you are working out effectively to achieve results. I think EMDR can be very effective for those who are ready for healing and put it into practice. But it isn’t the miracle cure that people often think it is.”

The group had heard my philosophies on therapy many times over and they were familiar with my approach toward healing. I’d seen people viewing EMDR as something magical, but I knew from personal experience that it didn’t always work.

The room grew silent as I formed my thoughts. “I’ve shared a lot of my personal story with you guys in the past. When I was married and Mormon, after the birth of my first son, I got really fat and really depressed. I was working more than full-time as a therapist helping people solve their life problems, but I felt broken inside. This was just a few years before I came out. I had come to think that my being gay was something that was broken inside me, and I had given up on trying to find a cure spiritually because there just wasn’t a cure.

“So I figured it must be something emotionally wrong with me. I read a few books that backed that up. I read in some texts (books that I later learned have absolutely no scientific basis) that homosexuality was caused by unmet emotional needs, and that through therapy and effort ‘heterosexuality could be restored’, as one book put it.

“And I remembered what my teacher had said about EMDR being a healthy treatment for trauma. So I found an EMDR therapist, a really nice woman named Jenelle. She spent the first few sessions (I was paying 100 dollars per session, by the way, and I wasn’t telling my wife about them) taking down my history. I told her pretty much everything, except that I was gay. I simply couldn’t admit it. I told her about stuff from childhood, like abandonment and abuse, but I didn’t tell her the real reason that I was there, to stop being gay.

“So after that, we did six separate sessions of EMDR. In total, I spent almost a thousand dollars on the process, but it didn’t do anything for me. I mean, it was nice to talk to someone, but I wasn’t prepared to discuss my real traumas, and EMDR couldn’t possibly do anything for me. You can’t cure something that can’t be cured.”

There was silence in the room as everyone digested the information, and I smiled. “So learn EMDR. And be prepared to use it. It helps a lot of people who have been through terrible things. Combat veterans, sexual assault survivors, people who have lost loved ones to suicide. But know that any kind of therapy has to be individualized for the person. There is no wonder drug out there, and there is no wonder therapy, that magically will cure all ails.”

Soon, the group ended and everyone walked out. For a moment, I closed my eyes, and I pictured being back there with Jenelle. I had headphones on and the sounds of ocean waves were rushing into my ears through head phones, alternating right and left, right and left, and she sat close and tapped my knees, right and left, right and left. She’d told me to talk about a particular trauma, and I’d chosen a memory from childhood where I’d felt isolated and alone. She’d had me observe the trauma from afar as I talked about it, picturing myself on a train that was rushing by so I could observe the events and leave them behind as the train slowly sped by. Right and left, right and left. Somewhere inside me, the old prayer had still been alive, the one begging God to make me whole. Right and left, right and left, right and left.

I’d rather be at the DMV

redtape

I stepped into the Bureau of Occupational Licensing in Salt Lake City with a smile on my face. It wouldn’t stay there long.

“Hi, I’m here to renew my social work license. It looks like it expired a few days ago and I didn’t realize it.”

The woman stepped up to the counter, seemingly frustrated, and I wondered if she was having a bad day. “Did you bring the form, or will I need to print that out for you?”

“If you could print it out, that would be great, thanks.”

Several seconds went by while she printed out the form and handed it to me. Before I had taken the paper, she was already talking. “Sir, I’m going to need you to step away from the counter while you fill that out. Now, please.”

I looked surprised. “Um, of course. Give me a chance.”

A few minutes later, I returned the renewal form to the next counter over. Another woman, disinterested and in a rush, looked it over. “That’ll be $115 dollars. $95 plus a $20 late fee.”

“Wait, because I’m a couple of days late, you mark the price up by 25 per cent?”

“Well, sir, if you had been responsible and renewed it on time, then there wouldn’t be a late fee. There is nothing I can do about it.” She spoke sternly, like a parent scolding a child, and I immediately swallowed my frustration. Over a few seconds of silence, she looked up. “Didn’t you receive your renewal notification?”

“I didn’t. I usually get a letter or Email but this time I didn’t see anything.”

“Well, you should have checked your spam folders and made sure your address was correct. This wasn’t our fault.”

“I never said it was.” She printed out the credit card receipt and had me sign it. “Thank you,” I said, trying a smile. “While the license renewal processes over the next few days, can I get a temporary license form that shows that I have renewed?”

“No, that wouldn’t be possible.”

“Um, what about a letter that says I have paid? I have a few job contracts that will require that verification letter in order for me to maintain the business.”

“I told you it wasn’t possible. You are welcome to plead your case with the social work board up on the fourth floor, but I don’t think it will help.”

I nodded, said thank you again, and walked to the elevator, went to the fourth floor, went into the appropriate office, and asked for a member of the social work board. After I waited several minutes, a woman came out of the door with an air about her that left me feeling like I had interrupted something.

“Hi, I don’t know your name, can I help you?” She stayed standing over me.

“I’m Chad. I just paid downstairs to get my social work license renewed and I would like to get verification for some of my business contracts. A letter of verification, or a temporary license perhaps.”

She sighed. “That isn’t something I can help with. It was your responsibility to renew on time. It will take them 24 hours to process the payment downstairs in accounting, and then I can begin the renewal process which could take 7-14 days.”

I grimaced, feeling scolded again. “Okay, is there a way for us to go downstairs and get the payment so you could process now? If so, that would be amazing.”

“I already told you I can’t do that. It’s against regulation. If you had renewed online, it would have given you a verification and temporary license immediately. But you chose to come down in person, now there is nothing I could do.”

“No one explained that to me. Could we go back downstairs and cancel the credit card payment so that I can go renew online instead? I could do that right now. I know this is my fault, but I’ve been licensed for 15 years. This has never happened.”

She shifted her wait to one leg, looking down at me. “If you’ve been at this for 15 years, then you should know by now to keep your license renewed on time.” The woman told me to hang on and went in the back for a time to ask some questions, then told me to wait again while she went downstairs. She came back a few minutes later. “Well, I checked for you, but my hands are tied. Like I said, the payment has to process and then we will send it out in a week.”

I breathed silently for a moment, then smiled. “I’m going to lose business unless I can provide verification today. Is there any sort of documentation you could help me with?”

“I already said no.” Her feet were firmly planted.

Very frustrated now, I looked up. “If I had known about the Internet option, or if I had received the verifications, I would have renewed. The date slipped by me. In the future, though, when someone like me comes in for help, a little bit of understanding and empathy would go a very long way. I am not blaming you or your Department for something that is my fault, but being caught up in your agency’s red tape and losing business because of it is very frustrating.” My voice was calm and even.

She placed her hands on her hips and kept her voice equally calm. “I am sorry if I came across that way. It is just that this is the tenth complaint like this I have had today.”

“If I could provide feedback then, not for you but for the agency, if ten people in one morning are complaining about the same thing, it might be a good idea to revisit some of the agency policies.”

She snapped back. “And if you would learn to renew your license after your claimed 15 years in the business we wouldn’t have a problem.”

I stood up and grabbed my bag, calmly and angrily at once. “I’m going to step away now because I’m getting frustrated. But I am a competent professional, and I would expect to be treated as such by the licensing board of my profession.”

I walked out the door and got on the elevator, my neck and head hot, and contemplated how I would suddenly have a free evening, unable to work on various projects until a bureaucratic agency full of unhappy employees decided to process my paperwork.

“I’d rather be at the DMV,” I muttered as I exited.

when you’ve stopped looking

giphy.gif

Because I’m me, and you’re you, and we are perfectly different from each other and exactly the same.

At times, I grow weary of the human capacity, and I end up sitting down at a blank keyboard and typing existential thoughts about human existence and human experience and human sacrifice and human vulnerability and human trust.

When I get in these moods, I know that I have had too much work lately, too much dwelling upon the pains of others as a therapist, and too little time for self-care or adventure. And this week would qualify as such.

And thus my opening statement. I have a whole human universe within me, and everyone has the same capacities in them. If I sat and made a list of the issues that have afflicted my family during my 37 year old lifetime, it very likely wouldn’t look that much different from yours.

abuse, divorce, drug addiction, religious shame issues, coming out of the closet, communication issues, parenting stress, passive aggressiveness, depression, anxiety, diabetes, aging, loneliness

I could keep the list going for pages as we all could. I take a wider look at my family as they exist right now, and I think of how much we have all changed in ten years, five years, one, even just a few months. My mom now has been watching her husband, in his early 80s, get dizzy and fall, while dealing with her own chronic headaches. My sister is balancing out the deadlines of her college assignments with her work responsibilities, all while trying to find time for exercise and her wife. My nephew, after dating unsuccessfully for a few years and putting himself through school, is suddenly planning a wedding to a beautiful girl. Another sister, who spent years with no children and who has now adopted three, is chasing three boys around, running herself ragged in an attempt to keep up and provide a happy home for her busy boys. My son, well-adjusted in his school, homework coming easy to him, reading and learning and exploring and asserting his independence, yet still struggling a bit with anxiety and finding his place in the world.

And me, in a great place in my life, building and building, incrementally, over time, changing and growing and ascending, yet never quite settled, never quite satisfied, learning to embrace the hunger and drive that are parts of me. I’m lonely lately, and bored, even as I’m feeling powerful and accomplished. I’m pushing myself back into history and forward into potential all at once. I’m exercising, and slowly getting out of debt. I have wonderful friends, my sons are thriving, I have important family relationships. And yet, I still seek and yearn.

I have to remind my clients sometimes, after they have come through a crisis, that the problems they are facing now are normal and typical. After all the car crashes and custody trials and funerals and suicide attempts and bankruptcies, what a relief and honor to feel basic sadness, discomfort, anger, and pain.

And I’m supremely grateful for the good things in my life, I am. Yet with all of that, I still grieve and strive and push.

I’ve been out of the closet five years now. In past years, I have celebrated. But this year, I let the anniversary pass quietly by. I worked, and wrote, and exercised, and poured myself a glass of wine and watched House of Cards and went to bed by 9. I was content and bored and satisfied and hungry and lonely and confident and impatient and settled all at once.

I had a friend tell me recently, in a discussion about a few unexpected heartbreaks I went through this past year, that I’ll probably find a relationship now that I’ve stopped looking for one. I’ve been told this before, but this statement bothered me this time. When people say that, ‘now that you’ve stopped looking’, what do they really mean? Now that you have contented yourself? Now that you’ve been hurt enough times that you don’t want to risk getting hurt anymore? Now that you’ve stopped being romantic or spontaneous or asking anyone else out? Now that you have stopped having expectations of anyone you meet, and you generally expect that they will flake out or lie or be inconsistent after a date or two? Now that you are turning all of your energy toward yourself instead and have grown content with the idea that you will likely not be partnered for some time?

And that’s sad to me somehow. I mean, I’m stronger and more resolved, but I’ve lost my naivete a little bit as well, that’s what happens when the heart scars over a few times I suppose. I’m proud of myself. I don’t see a relationship as an accomplishment, or something to be acquired. In fact, my accomplishments are in the smiles and smarts of my children, and in the professional world I’ve created for myself, and in the cultivation of my talents. That said, it is still hard to be the single guy in a room full of couples. It’s difficult to look at the miracle of my sons playing together and to not have someone to share it with. It’s difficult to think of the dozens of dates, and the few times I’ve been in love, and to still be here on my own.

And all of that brings us to this simple moment. 4:24 pm, where I sit in a coffee shop with a half empty cup of coffee and a full glass of water, strangers all around me, classical music playing, two nicks stinging on my chin from where I cut myself shaving earlier, my back aching from sitting too long, my head and heart as complicated as they ever are, typing this stream-of-consciousness blog on a white screen. I will soon post it and no one will read it, or a handful of strangers will read it, or loved ones will read it, or hundreds will read it, and some will be sad and some bored and some annoyed and some inspired.

And soon I’ll leave here and step back into my life, the one that is still the same, yet different from ten minutes ago, as I am always the same and ever changing.

Because I’m me, and you’re you, and we are perfectly different from each other and exactly the same.

Two White Guys Talking About Privilege

dc9Kn6pqi

Hey, professor, you wanted to see me?

Yeah, Mark, close the door, let’s talk for a bit. Have a seat.

What’s up?

During class today, when we were talking about privilege, you got quiet.

That’s because I didn’t have anything to say.

I think that is unlikely. You are usually very talkative and insightful during class. And you were more than just quiet, you were uncomfortable and closed off.

Nah, I’m good.

Mark, look, you aren’t being graded on this. You showed up to class and got your work done. Grade already recorded. This is just a discussion and a check-in. What happened today?

Look, I–I just learned early on in this program that when it comes to topics like this, no one wants to know what I have to say.

And why do you feel that way?

I’m a white guy. I’m the minority here and no matter what I say is going to be wrong. And when I have tried to share things in this program, I’ve been attacked.

Okay, let’s look at the big picture here. You are working on getting a Masters degree in Social Work. You are in a cohort of primarily women, in fact about 80 per cent of the students are women, and it is safe to say that all of them are feminists.

That’s fine. I’m a feminist too.

So am I. Now why do you feel like you are attacked when you share your opinion on the topic of privilege?

I don’t feel attacked, I am attacked.

Why do you feel attacked?

Okay, okay. Look, a couple of weeks back, I tried sharing my opinion on gay marriage in a class where the topic came up. I don’t have a problem with gay people, I really don’t. I have gay friends, I believe in gay rights. I know you’re gay. And I’m not Mormon like most of the people here, but I am Christian, and it’s not so easy, you know? I see gay people at my internship and I was talking to my pastor about that once and he told me that any time I choose to provide service to gay people, then I am choosing them over God. And so I shared that in class, that I felt divided, and a bunch of the students interrupted me and got angry and told me that if I wanted to be a social worker, I would have to quit my church, and no one would listen. They attacked me for being a Christian white guy. So now I just don’t share my opinion any more.

Okay, to start, you have heard me talk about the ‘yes, and’ principle in class before. Two realities can co-exist at the same time. The sun can warm me, and it can burn me. Food can nourish me and make me gain weight. My mom can have two gay kids that she loves and supports and still not know where she stands on gay marriage. And you can be a Christian white social worker whose religious beliefs and professional beliefs don’t always line up. There is room for contradictions in all of us.

Yeah, I get that.

So I’m going to be tough on you before I am supportive. Is that okay?

Yes, I trust you and your intentions.

There is an absolute irony about you feeling attacked.

An irony? How so?

Be fair, be strengths-focused. Why do you think your comments upset the people around you?

Because they are women with strong opinions, and anything but the answer they want is the wrong answer.

I don’t think that is the case at all. Try again, why do you think they are upset.

I honestly don’t know. Help me out here.

You understand the concept of privilege, right?

Sure, those in the majority have inherent privileges in their day to day living that those in minorities don’t have to deal with.

Give me a few examples.

As a man, I can be hired and expect a fair wage, where women often get harassed and paid way less than men for doing the same job. As a white guy, I see my majority represented everywhere in American leadership, I have better access to scholarships, jobs, pay, legal representation, college opportunities, etc.

Excellent. We had a conversation about privilege on the first day of class. The more majority statuses you fall into, the greater your privilege opportunities. White, Christian, male, young, fit or thin, able-bodied, gender-defined, straight, healthy, middle class or above.

Yeah, I remember. We talk about it in all of our classes a little bit.

Since your legs work, you don’t have to worry about whether or not a wheelchair ramp is available to your second floor classes. Since you were born male, and you define as male, you get to use the men’s room without having to worry about what people think because you are transgender. Since you are young and not elderly, you can drive a car without everyone around you assuming you are slow or lacking purpose, everyone being impatient around you.

Right, I get all that.

You get it in the head, not sure you get it totally in the heart. They don’t always line up.

Okay, what does that have to do with all this.

You are in a graduate program in a field that advocates for social justice. This is one of the few programs that actually has a lot of material on privilege and its implications, one of the few programs that has a majority of women. This program actually gets you to think about and confront difficult ideas on these topics.

So what makes my experience here ironic?

Mark, when it comes to big conversations like this in the public, who do you think has the most to say? Who do you think gets the final say?

The majority. Men. White men.

Absolutely. And who feels silenced?

Women. Gay people. Everyone that falls into those non-majority categories.

Absolutely. But it is about more than feeling silenced. It’s different on almost every level. Let me give you an example. You are married, right?

Yeah.

Okay, when you go out in public, do you hold your wife’s hand?

Yeah, sure. All the time.

And do you feel watched, criticized, discriminated against?

No, why would I?

I’m a 36 year old man. I am dating a guy. A few Sundays ago, we are out walking, and we are holding hands, nothing else. Just walking, talking, and holding hands. And I hadn’t done that in a while. But everyone we walk by, I feel a nervousness creep up in my chest. I’m watching them to see if they notice us holding hands, every person we pass. And I’m expecting them to say things like ‘gross’ or ‘fags’ or ‘disgusting.’ I’m expecting someone to just look up and say ‘we don’t care what you do in your home, but do you have to do that out here?’ And I’m walking around and I’m nervous, even though I’m trying to relax.

Look, I–

Wait, I’m not done. So this guy and I, we see this couple sitting on the concrete stairs in front of us. An older white guy with a beard, and an older black woman, and both of them are in dirty clothes and look like they have probably been using drugs recently. As as we get closer, they both sit up and I’m waiting for one of them to say something rude to us. The lady, she says loudly, ‘Hey!’ and I take a step back, nervous, not sure if she is going to ask for money or say something rude to us. And I say ‘yeah?’ and she says ‘I just wanted to say, I think you two are cute.’ And I say ‘thank you’ and the guy I’m holding hands with and I both smile and laugh about this.

Okay, but–

Just a minute, I’m almost done. So I’m walking away, and I’m thinking about how terrible it is that in 2015, I have to be nervous about something as simple as holding hands with a guy that I like, and how straight people never have to think about it. And that’s privilege. And then I realize that because I’m in the middle class and I have an apartment and a bank account, I see this couple and I automatically assume they want to ask for money, and they probably think that every person who walks by them thinks they are going to ask for money. People avoid eye contact, treat them rudely, get scared when they say ‘hey’ because they assume these things about them. And they have to live with that. And this woman, she’s not only poor, she’s a woman, and she’s black, and she has all these other things in her mind. I’m worried about what people will say because I’m gay. She’s worried about sexual assault and judgments and where she is going to sleep tonight. And that is privilege. And it sucks that we live in a world based around it.

I… okay. Yeah. That sucks.

So here is the irony. You are feeling marginalized in one class by a few people who didn’t like what you had to say. You felt attacked by some students in your cohort in a program that is all about social justice.

What makes that ironic?

Well, simply put: that feeling you felt in class? Feeling silenced, disrespected, like no one around you wanted to hear what you had to say?

Yeah?

That’s how I felt all the time as a gay kid growing up. Every day. That is how many of the women in your class feel in this patriarchal world of men. That is how everyone who doesn’t fall in the majority feels all the time.

Whoa.

Yeah. And you felt it once. And so now you aren’t talking any more.

I–yeah–that–wow. Okay. So that’s what it feels like to not be privileged.

Exactly.

Okay.

Now let me give you credit. You have a good brain. An intuitive mind. You care about people. You advocate for others. You are a good student and a good social worker. And this is a ‘yes, and’ thing again. You are privileged. You are going to have to learn how to listen to others. How to feel marginalized and be okay with it. How to share your experiences and conflicts with others, and listen when they don’t agree with you, and ask questions, and learn how others feel, not just with your head but with your heart. You don’t get to shut down. You get to be uncomfortable and learn. Because…

Because that is how others feel all the time.

Exactly. So next time the conversation starts, I want you to join in, because we need your voice. It’s a good one.

Thank you, professor. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

Thank you for being willing to think about it. See you next week, Mark.

Yeah, see you next week.

Helping the Helpers

overworked-doctor

“Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”

This morning, I walked across a parking lot toward my vehicle in a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt that reads “That’s what.” –She, my backpack over my shoulder, car keys in my hand. An older woman, likely in her mid-70s, pulling an oxygen tank behind her walked toward me. She had a brunette perm, a flowered blouse, and baggy black slacks on. Her glasses slid down to the end of her nose in classic grandma fashion.

“Um, yes?”

She walked quickly across the parking lot. “What is it that you do? What are you any good at?”

“I’m sorry?” Concerned, I unlocked my car and set my backpack inside.

“I said, ‘what are you any good at?'”

“Oh, I heard you, I just didn’t really understand the question.”

She got closer to my car now, just a few feet away. “I need help!”

I looked at her with concern. “What kind of help?”

“There–there is a young girl next door,” she explained, out of breath. “She’s crying. I’ve never met her, but she’s crying, and I asked her if she is okay, and I think she said she wasn’t okay but I wasn’t sure and she’s still crying, and are you any good at that?”

I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes, suspicious. “Am I any good at what? I’m just out running an errand.”

“Son, I’m asking you what you are good at!” She stepped in closer. “She’s crying and I don’t know what to do!”

She suddenly looked angry. What in heaven’s name is going on, I wondered. “Well, if you are worried about her, maybe you should call the police.”

“She’s in a house I’ve never been in and I don’t have a phone! Please just come with me!”

“Ma’am, I’m very sorry, but I need to get going.”

She looked angry, then disappointed, then sad as I started my car, backed out, and began to pull away. A hundred scenarios flashed through my head. Was she trying to get me into the house so I could be mugged? Was she suffering from dementia and having an episode? Was there really a mystery girl next door crying in a house?

I drove past the woman and pulled out onto the small road next to the parking lot. One house down, I slowed the car. There was a girl sitting on the front porch in her early twenties, looking unkempt, in a white tank top and Capris. She had headphones in her ears and mussed hair. She looked up at me as I drove by slowly, her eyes streaked with tears, and we briefly made eye contact. She flipped me off as I drove by.

What just happened?

I pictured myself presenting to my college class later this week, as an ethical scenario. I teach social workers, all working on a masters in the field, and I enjoy presenting unorthodox scenarios and picking their brains. Was it ethically sound for me as a professional who upholds a license and a duty to help others to drive away from this old woman and crying adult? I could open the topic for discussion, but my students would already know my answer. In my office, it is my job to help those who are in front of me, but I was out on the street as a civilian. I need boundaries, and I’m not expected to put myself in potentially dangerous situations. Calling the authorities would be sufficient in the worst scenarios, and in this case I don’t have enough information to even do that.

When I first entered the field of social work, I was surprised by how often strangers and family members would solicit me for advice.

“I think my husband is cheating on me, what should I do?”

“My daughter’s friend said that her daddy touches her sometimes and I don’t know what that means, but he gives me the creeps. Should I call Child Protection? What do I do?”

“I’ve been having flashbacks to my brother’s suicide, what does that mean?”

Even worse are the date therapy sessions. Meeting a guy for the first time and having those awkward conversations about where you grew up, who is in your family, and what you do for a living.

“I’m a clinical social worker.”

“Oh, really? I have a counselor. I’ve had one for years, in fact. After my dad left when I was a kid and my mom married a guy who later went to jail, I attempted suicide and sometimes I still think about it.”

I have a tremendous amount of compassion and I like helping others, but not at the expense of myself, and not on a date. Extending too much of myself leads to a little thing called compassion fatigue, a fancy way of saying burnout. I care too much for too many and too little for myself, and suddenly instead of helping a few people a lot I only get to help a lot of people a little. And I go home exhausted.

I sometimes have friends who worry about being able to confide in me about their struggles. But that’s different. In a reciprocal friend relationship, I can rely on others just as they rely on me. If we hang out three times a month and you are having a bad day, sure, call me up and let’s chat. But if I haven’t seen you in five years and you call for advice on your estranged mother, well, I’ve got a little less to offer.

It must be worse for nurses and doctors.

“Is it normal for this to be this purple/stiff/dry/swollen? Could you take a look?”

So, to the old lady and the crying girl who randomly crossed my path this morning, I hope the help you need. You just won’t get it from me.