META ON METTA

 

The end of any year brings seemingly innumerable invitations to make financial pledges. This is not one such! It is a contemplation, rather, on the merits of taking the whole process of New Year’s resolutions one step further, by creating or adopting a meaningful philosophical pledge, for the coming year and beyond—a pledge that, like metta meditation, moves you to consider your own life and the life of the world through the same lens—then post it somewhere prominent where you won’t fail to see it. A dashboard could work, for those idle moments in traffic. The back of a smart-phone case, as a tactile reminder on an abstract medium. A few valuable inches on your fridge.

I do my damnedest, in this writing, to maintain a positive approach to the subject at hand; I could opine all day long, but the virtual world is full of tirades already. I also try to be simple and straightforward; there’s an overabundance of glib commentary. With the conscious effort that my approach can require, I help reorient myself toward my own higher ideals—of which I not infrequently lose sight in my day-to-day interactions. I mostly write about my therapeutic work; but I’m no plaster saint, to use an old expression. As a child, I was asked to suppress my anger, and it’s still coming out now—mostly in the form of outrage over this and that aspect of culture, all the grievous injustices of which I’m aware, but also things that hit close to home and close to the bone, failures of friendship and emotional betrayals.

So: New Year’s resolutions are all well and good—my default is “Write more; swear less”—but I also need something bigger, deeper, stronger. Something to help me face the daily challenge of living, above and beyond a singular achievement, however important. My very first client, at my first internship, helped me to realize this. Whereas I had grown up in a broken-down neighborhood in a broken-down city, she lived a semi-rural life and loved her chickens with every fiber of her beautiful being—knew their personalities and followed events in the pecking order like a telenovela. Together we worked on validating her negative feelings, so that instead of being suppressed, they might transform themselves and empower her.

Through her, I came to be aware of the 4-H pledge: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.” I saw her living out those values in continuing to love those who had hurt her, despite looking with clear eyes at their flaws, and rising above the chaos she’d known at home. The first four assertions have spoken to me ever since, like a nondenominational statement of grace. (I have mixed feelings about that string of possessive mys, and those feelings amplify as the picture gets bigger. Whose world? Our world.) An even simpler distillation of values, which for me is supremely grounding, is posted above my desk at work, a reminder to me and my clients: Be curious.

In 2018 and thereafter, I hope that ecosystems will be protected and valued as sacred, and that workers will be fairly paid and treated. I hope the humble honeybee, with its staggering commitment to fructifying the earth, will survive colony collapse. I hope that the rights of women, and various vulnerable populations, will be recognized and upheld. I hope that buzz words like “slow food” and “slow fashion” will build up to full-on movements, and that the doomed cultures of Agribusiness and Big Pharma will fall. Food doesn’t come from factories, and answers don’t come in pills. I hope that we collectively will have the resilience to develop the patience to labor on toward real answers—many of which can be found in traditions whose caretakers are indigenous peoples. And, of course, I hope children grow up feeling safe, loved, and respected. So many visions and wishes for our planet. I’ll be doing my part as best I can. I share these thoughts today, in this quiet corner of the internet—deliberately free from the commercial intrusions of ads—as an act of loving-kindness: I wish good things for me, and I wish them for you.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!

 

INVISIBLE INK

 

We were walking together alongside the building when he veered away from me to climb the perimeter of an unused loading dock. He had done that before, on another walk, and appeared cheerfully confident of my discomfort as he placed one foot before the other on the concrete edge, tightrope-style. Dismissing my worries about his safety, he compared me to his granny, who was his guardian and whom he described as “your standard, everyday grandmother.”

Well, I didn’t correct him on that point; for a kid with his background, being able to take a caregiver for granted is a hard-won luxury. However, I can tell you, she was anything but ordinary. For one thing, she was actually his great-grandmother; her early life unfolded against a backdrop of WWII, yet she was still working full-time and ferrying kids to after-school activities when I started seeing them.

Before she obtained custody, she drove to Jason’s house each day—never knowing what she would find—to take him to school. Without her, he wouldn’t have gotten there, neglected among adults whose lives were given over to pills and needles. Now she was raising him. On a rainy afternoon, as she and I were chatting, I glanced down and noticed matching holes, big as silver dollars, worn into the top of each shoe; she laughed as she admitted she was too busy to try on new ones.

It’s thanks in no small part to her, I’m thinking, that Jason was able to hold his own in the world. His bravado on the loading dock notwithstanding, he had at least one quotidian fear that could send him into a panic. Perhaps that’s why it was tempting for him to show off a bit of fearlessness with me—it was probably empowering for him to scare me in that little way.

Someone had given him a pen that wrote in invisible ink. He brought it to show me once, and was writing secret hieroglyphs on the waiting room walls when I walked out to greet him. They would only be visible in purple light, he said. I think about that, and I think about his history, which he wasn’t inclined or equipped to discuss. Hopefully that exploration would happen one day. So much of our lives are written in invisible ink; it takes the right kind of light, shone in the right places, to reveal what is hidden in plain sight. At its best, counseling can shine a soft violet beam—which is, in fact, a careful reflection of a client’s own light.

Late November is meant, in my part of the world, to be a season of gratitude. This year I feel grateful on Jason’s behalf for the care I saw him receive—for the memory of his great-grandmother’s hand ruffling his red hair as she said, when I asked how his week had been, “He’s a good boy.” And I’m grateful for the invisible heart he drew on my hand. Despite innumerable washings since, it’s still there.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!

GORILLA! BANANA!

 

Frank was twelve, and living with grandparents for the reason now so common here: his parents got caught up in drugs and abandoned him. He had a roof over his head when I met him, but still lacked nurturing. One grandparent was an alcoholic whose next bender would crash the family car; the other was a chainsmoker forced to drag an oxygen tank with her everywhere she went. She dragged it into my office, where she proceeded to carp and nag and bicker Frank into oblivion. No wonder his posture had become a slow slink off the chair toward the floor.

Caregivers can be the unwitting designers of psychological stress tests, their children the unfortunate test subjects. Frank’s grandmother had a habit of saying “No” that was so deeply entrenched, I seriously heard her once contradict Frank on whether the sun was shining. The acts of defiance for which he was brought to counseling swiftly came to seem to me like logical expressions of resistance, little signs of patriotic loyalty to his own nascent self. Did they make life harder for her? I’m certain they did. I’m equally certain things weren’t, at bottom, his fault.

When Frank and I spent time alone together, the handful of times they came in, I made it my business to say yes as often as possible, to affirm his playful nature by playing back. Silliness came easily because I felt I could see it nourishing him; even though I believe in the value of play, it’s harder for me to be silly when I don’t feel connected to the deeper reward, just as it’s hard for me in my personal life to make small talk unless I know Big Talk is also an option.

Late one afternoon, Frank threw himself to the carpet. I remember it being dark outside, so we must have hit Daylight Savings, that cold plunge. I don’t why, but instead of telling me about his day, he began calling out the names of fruit: “Apple! Pineapple!” So I also lay down on the carpet, at the little distance my office allowed, and began repeating after him. When he came to “Banana!” he exclaimed it while “jumping” a little, as if popping from a cartoon peel. So I did that, too. He did it again. I did it again. Then, in the middle of trading off, I sat up slightly, beat my chest, and said, “Gorilla!” And the game became Gorilla! Banana!

Thrilled by the sweet, spontaneous fun of it all, I later described the scene to a coworker at my night job. “Sounds like a drinking game,” was his reply. Which sums up quite a lot about quite a lot, including why I write. I need a place to bring my enthusiasms and my earnestness. Everyone does.

Another evening, Frank was in a soberer mood. I invited him to color in a heart with a color for each emotion he was feeling and proportional to it. The heart he filled in was one of overwhelming sadness, with cracks in it, but with love at the center. He shared with me a new prognosis for his grandmother’s health. We discussed it, and he decided to show his heart to her when she came in. What do you think she did?

She told him he was lying—lying, about his heart—and ought to own up to the truth, that he was only sad about losing time on his videogames, a consequence imposed for some misbehavior. What good would counseling do, if he was only going to mislead his counselor? He and his sibling had both had services off and on, with various providers and the same essential refrain. I barely got a word in edgewise; she let me get as far as validating her perceptions as such, but then no further. She rejected utterly the notion of his love.

As they left the session and walked down the hall, I called after him softly. He turned. “Gorilla!” I whispered, and beat my chest. He brightened, and popped like a banana in reply. That was a couple years ago. I haven’t seen him since.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. ***I’d like to put in a plug for Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen, an inspiring book and enjoyable read.*** “The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!

 

(UN)PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE

 

“Therapy is not meant to last forever,” I tell my kid clients during our first visit. After inviting them to express their feelings about being brought to counseling, I ask them to think about how they’ll know when the work of therapy is done. What will have changed for them?

In asking this, I hope to empower them and shape our work according to their priorities, not necessarily, or only, those of their caregivers. After all, change requires buy-in. Simultaneously, it is my way of planting a seed for one of therapy’s most important flowerings: the good goodbye.

Everyone can expect to experience loss over the fullness of a lifetime; but childhood, for the clients we see in community mental health, can already be replete with losses both clear and ambiguous. Parents especially seem to disappear, in the county where I currently work—into jail, substance use, other towns and states, other relationships and families, mental illness, accidents, suicide, and even death by homicide.

Such loss is complicated in untold ways, with impacts on identity and self-esteem, attachment, concentration, decision-making, moods, stress, coping style, and the immune system. A positive therapeutic relationship, while not “fixing” all that’s gone before, can be a corrective experience, providing safety, reliability, tolerance and adaptability, support and regard, healthy boundaries, respect, and (crucially) warmth. I would contend that when therapy “works,” that corrective quality is the main reason why.

Bringing closure to all the relating that’s come before, the good goodbye is one that is anticipated, planned for, and—though there’s room for sad feelings as well—celebrated together as an accomplishment. I like to provide client-specific “transitional objects,” small items that can carry forward the memory and meaning of our time together. I’ve given skeleton keys, worry stones, figurines, feathers, memory books, and (so far) one mixed CD, all accompanied by notes or letters of congratulations. One spunky little girl I see has already requested brownies, though the end is not yet in sight; for a teen with a love of savory sweets, I made rosemary shortbread.

Needless perhaps to say, all this preparation is as much for me as for the client. I, too, experience some attachment in my work with clients, to varying degrees, and the good goodbye helps me to find closure for work that has impacted me as well. (In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk espouses the belief that clients can’t grow and change if they can’t see their impact on their worker; I’m hopeful that my clients can see theirs on me.)

The good goodbye is also a corrective experience for me for other losses, both personal and professional—those goodbyes that never resolve. When denied it—when, as happened late this spring, a favorite client simply drops off the map, our work together feels as open-ended and prone to fraying as an unfinished hem. Though coached by colleagues to trust and let go, it is hard not to comb over my memories of our last visit, for possible clues. Did an errant remark cause pain or offense that the client or caregiver wasn’t comfortable addressing?

It’s impossible to know. Some clients aren’t good about calling under any circumstances, let alone the momentous ones that announce the end. My lost client had made radical progress—was he just doing well enough that he felt he was done? Although I give all credit to him and his mom, did disappearing feel necessary to him, in order to own his gains? Or could it be that a lack of experience with healthy endings might have caused him and/or his mother to dread the emotions of closure? When people protect their emotions, it is often (and often unwittingly, though not always) at others’ expense.

In any case, I send my best wishes to him.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!

FIGURINES & HIGH-FIVES

 

 

Ten-year-old Gertie was beside herself one afternoon early this summer, because her sister was joining us as her guest. The last time had been a year prior; Amanda, two years older, had held herself with impeccable posture and poise on that occasion, allowing an ironic smile to play about her lips as Gertie, exclaiming, attempted to include her sister in her favorite activities. By asking arch and pointed questions, Amanda called attention to the immature nature of Gertie’s play and undermined her confidence as host.

This summer, however, Amanda was generous with her younger sister. She treated her kindly and played by her rules. Gertie delighted in her directive role and soon had us closing our eyes while she buried objects in my sand box for us to find. Feeling around in the cool soft spill of near-white particles, we uncovered shells and gems and fake fossils, cars and keys, dice and a dog dish, various animals, and little painted baby figurines: crawling baby, sleeping baby, baby with a blanket. Then it was Amanda’s turn to hide objects for us; and to help Gertie manage her impatience, her inclination to peek, I suggested that we leave the room and skip up and down in the long hall until we were summoned. That, she seemed to love. Skipping became part of every spell of waiting, sometimes with me, sometimes with Amanda.

Later in the summer, Gertie and I were out for a walk around the grounds—if such a term can be applied to a vast sea of asphalt with a shoreline of rough grass and scrubby trees—when I learned that she had never played Follow the Leader. Therein was a golden opportunity to offer her a healthy, sanctioned chance to take charge, since her interactions at school tended toward bullying behavior. Abused and shamed as a younger child by those she used to live with, she was hungry for acceptance and had a history of forcing herself upon her peers, neither respecting boundaries nor taking no for an answer. Notably, when given the role of leader, she offered me turns unprompted—a sign to me that it was, perhaps, serving as a corrective experience.

Follow the Leader followed us indoors and took up where skipping had left off, as a way of extending play beyond my small square office and into the hall. We walked in slow motion, and backward, and bawk-bawking like chickens. Gradually, inexorably, this turned into running laps.

For an “office-based therapist”—my term of self-introduction when we interview candidates for open positions, of which there are perpetually many; more on that another day—I run an awful lot of laps. And I feel, in doing so, a vertiginous awareness of what it used to be like to weigh almost nothing, my childhood body so light that I could nearly fly. I feel this as kids fly along beside me, colts beside a mare. I give it my all and sometimes even beat them to the far door or, back, to the wall where we land, smack, our hands planting hard.

Starting out, I don’t think Gertie was running for the pure joy of running; she was running to win, and with perfect competitive instinct, she forced me out of my own path, such that I would have had to physically push her to clear my way and run at full speed. I wasn’t going to do that, of course; I just trailed her, back and forth, wall to door to wall. When she announced she needed a break for water, I validated her awareness of that need. We’d stop for water, then start again.

And then something interesting happened. She said, “Go,” but let me take off on my own. Confused, I stopped. She directed me to run without her. So I did, back and forth. She sent me out alone again. This time, however, when I reached the door and turned, she started out from the wall and ran toward me, such that our paths would be crossing halfway. Instinctively, I reached for a high-five.

That became our new game: running separately, as if in a relay, and high-fiving each other in passing. For fun, I introduced variations: two-handed, to the side, down-low. Our palms met perfectly each time, a satisfying clap such as I have rarely known. As we passed my open office door, she must have had her eyes on the clock, for she started curtailing her circuit. Again, I was at first confused—was this a move to gain some advantage?—but she explained, “It’s almost time to go, so I’m shortening it.” So we ran shorter and shorter laps, clapping hands with increasing frequency, until at last we were circling each other, in a kind of do-si-do.

Gertie had gone through a prolonged angry phase over the course of the year, in which she proclaimed to hate her life and the world around her, especially her caregivers. There were exceptions, of course; but literally for months, she looked like she wanted violent revenge for every one of the many wrongs done her. She wore that look even while playing Follow the Leader. When we walked out to the lobby on the first day we ran laps, to rejoin her grandmother, she was wreathed in smiles.

I, too, felt wreathed—as if laurels had been woven and set upon my hair. Because again she had transformed her play, from competition to cooperation. And because I’d seen her face flushed and lit with its former, glorious light.

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“The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading!

THE NUMBERS GAME (PART ONE)

 

Summer is the doldrums in community mental health. Outside, heat sits heavy on the day, while inside, the corridors fall silent, as client after client DNAs (Does Not Arrive). Even families who lack means can find better things to do than sit in the stuffy offices of our cinderblock strip-mall building when the sun is out—skipping visits without, often, so much as a how-do-you-do.

Ostensibly, golden rays of sun provide community mental health workers with a golden opportunity to catch up on paperwork. In reality, missed visits mean spending precious time making (and documenting) outreach calls and sending (and documenting) outreach letters, while facing the likely assignment of other clients in order to meet the agency’s billable expectations.

Community mental health agencies are generally positioned as the providers of last resort; at least where I currently live, we are mandated to provide services for any client who presents and meets the state’s criteria of need. That mandate means that we are fronted money by the state and/or insurers (mostly Medicaid) in order to maintain the infrastructure to provide services; but we have to earn that money after the fact by meeting productivity standards, or the agency is required to pay back the difference. (Oversight by the agency’s funders is provided, in part, through random chart audits.)

Let’s say an agency has an expectation of 20 hours of billable (i.e., in-person client) time per therapist per week, plus staff meetings and paperwork. With a 20-hour billable expectation (or 50 percent of the work week, which is on the low end of the spectrum), if a therapist has (for example) 26 clients on her or his caseload, and all 26 arrive for their appointments in a given week, congratulations from supportive team leaders are forthcoming for the success.

If, on the other hand, only 17 of 26 clients make appearances, that’s three short of the minimum required; and if that happens to a therapist more than once or twice in a given timeframe, team leaders are charged with addressing the issue, and more clients are assigned—typically two or three at a time—until billables are consistently met. Since there has never yet been an end to the aforementioned need, there are always clients awaiting assignment to therapists (even if, once assigned, they don’t end up following through). Each new client requires outreach, scheduling—always harder when one’s weekly planner is already at least hypothetically full—and documentation of same.

Add to that the reality that, due to the nature of the agency, each case comes with a truly Sisyphean set of documents: the service plan, the crisis plan, releases of information, attestations of privacy measures and rights and responsibilities; quarterly evaluations, service plan revisions, and eligibility updates; annual reviews (which are like quarterlies x π); and, for every visit, a progress note.

All except the progress notes have to be done for every open case, regardless of a client’s presence or absence. The more clients, the more paperwork. There is even a special set of documentation requirements involved in closing a case, along with extensive dialogue with team leaders prior to taking that step. There is also, in many cases, collateral work to be done, in terms of reaching out to other players: secondary caregivers, DCYF, school personnel, JPPOs—to say nothing of intra-agency collaborations with the staff psychiatrist, case managers, and functional support specialists. Each and every phone call or contact, with or without a resulting conversation, is meant to be formally documented, as evidence of the efforts made on a client’s behalf.

Extra points to any reader who has already thought about the beating heart of the work, not yet mentioned here: whatever else is going on, however great the pressure and stress behind the scenes, when a client does walk through the door, it’s a therapist’s job to be present—to engage or reengage the client in the therapeutic relationship; to meet and respond to the crisis of the hour while holding fast to a greater vision that involves the needs expressed at intake and the goals outlined in the service plan.

We are meant to use evidence-based practices and stay current in the field, without sufficient time (or funds) allotted for that; yet we’re also meant to trust that we already possess the skills needed to work with most clients, whether said client is a disruptive five-year-old, a self-harming twelve-year-old, or a seventeen-year-old with a criminal record. In a given day, we might see all three in succession, with barely time for a bathroom break. We are meant to be familiar with their histories and family systems and have regular contact with any outside providers, as well as reevaluate diagnoses and service plans on a regular basis. We deal in poor attachment, grief, abandonment, trauma—but also in behavioral issues that might in some cases be purely biological, a matter of environmental conditions such as diet or chemical exposures, requiring basic changes to the physical conditions of the client that, due to a limited understanding / appreciation of such factors, simply aren’t made, while therapists are expected to work magic.

The meager pay is a topic for another day. Absentee clients have a way of highlighting the worst aspects of the work, and, through lack of momentum, can drain a therapist’s resources for engagement. Suffice it to say, summer is the time when my thoughts most wander to other possibilities. It is when the work I truly love—supporting and bearing witness to positive change—is at its ebb tide. And, of course, I’m stuck in a stuffy office in a cinderblock strip-mall…

To Be Continued.

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This month marks my third year of keeping this blog! Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading!

MY SMALL, GOOD THING

I had an insatiable hunger as a child, which I tried to feed with chapter books, great stacks that I collected on weekly library trips—cradled below my belly and held in place with my chin, as I carried them to the checkout counter.

That hunger is still present, but fiction often feels insubstantial these days, with so little time to spare and so much to accomplish. That shelf of titles on trauma, addiction, blended families, communication, grief, and more—I need what they contain. I need it all, I need it now. Such is the pressing quality of community mental health.

My intimate contact with the stories of traumatized children leaves me with simultaneous and contradictory incentives. One, to write so vividly of the horrors I hear and the pain I witness, that the general reader looks at the world anew: aghast and called to action. Two, to obscure those horrors so as not to titillate prurient minds or inspire troubled imaginations.

Sitting with memories of trauma is usually manageable; harder by far is to know that a trauma is ongoing—unfolding right before me in my office at times, in the words of caregivers who evidence no care to give, likely having received too little when they themselves were small. Harder is listening to parents, grandparents, and guardians who are overwhelmed and relentlessly negative, who fill the ears and hearts of their charges with every kind of blame and shame, each and every possible iteration of No. Needing to be diplomatic for the umpteenth time, when that is the last thing I feel; turning down the heat lest I, too, boil over.

So it is that I recommend Raymond Carver’s story, “A Small, Good Thing,” a masterful sketch of anguish in the ordinary world, and the humble ways we can assuage it. I reread it not long ago and carry that title within me, a phrase that describes the bird feeder on my window. How it took the birds two weeks to find it, but the first I saw was the male house finch, ardently red from crown to breast and finely patterned white and brown beneath. How the female house finch brings their juveniles to feed them beak to beak, while the punk-rock tufted titmouse busies himself with the sunflower seed.

Whatever else the day brings, there is that.

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The Raymond Carver story mentioned above appears in his great collection Cathedral, as well as numerous anthologies. Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading!