LETTERS AND WORDS

The waiting room had been freshly painted over, institutional off-white where once there’d been a warm robin’s egg blue. Not my choice, needless to say; the change felt aggressively bright and depleting, uninviting and not at all therapeutic. Someone else apparently took issue with it on some level, too, as a bit of vandalism appeared in short order where none had ever occurred before, at least not in my time. A defacement of the wall that I noted but blocked out, the way I note and block out the crumbling exterior details of the building and the grout in the bathroom tile that probably hasn’t been clean in decades. My client had studied it, though. “Um, do you see this?” Nodding toward the damage that suddenly resolved from random scrapes into a rough approximation of the word “slut.” Weeks passed, with kids and adults coming and going, sitting in the chair under that word. Was anything done about it? I could have submitted a work order, but at that point I was perversely curious whether anyone involved in admin or maintenance would notice and address it. Weeks more passed. Finally, an act of vandalistic intercession: someone scratched away diligently to transform “slut” into “slurp.” I appreciate that anonymous act of transformation while disliking both words for different reasons and finding the whole scenario to be yet another reminder that I need to be moving on from this place where I’ve dedicated so much energy. I need to be in a place more of my making, and that time is coming. I know it won’t be easy leaving, though. The collegial bonds forged in shared adversity are uniquely strong, of uncommon mettle, continually tested by the agency model. And then there are the children and families, and the honor and inspiration of working with them. The proud pencil marks on my door where I measured the heights of kids whose growing wasn’t always celebrated elsewhere, and other reminders in my office of clients who’ve come and gone. A paper painted fish above my coat hook. A little wooden house balanced atop a picture frame left over from a game of object-hide-and-seek. Sparkly stones on my windowsill. And this message on a post-it from a girl who used to end every visit by challenging me to a race down the hallway, glorying in her own speed: “Strong is the new cool.” A lasting gift that she, so fleet, gave to me.

 

 

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Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.

THE TITLE OF THIS POST WAS ALMOST “LOVE SAVES LIVES”

…then I thought about those who suffer at the holidays for losses that abundant love didn’t prevent, and I changed my mind. Love doesn’t always save lives, and I think it’s important to be sensitive to that. Losses aren’t always deaths, either, though they can hurt as much and feel as absolute. Loss of partnership, friendship, regard, connection, career, independence—regret and futility, whatever the source, are quite ruthlessly painful. Nonetheless, love can save lives at times, and what better use of a heart? I was reminded of its redemptive quality when I read this piece.

Best wishes for 2020, with 20/20 vision, clarity, purpose, health, and l-o-v-e.

 

 

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I, for one, will be glad to see the end of 2019, despite the challenges that lie ahead. Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too. Bonne Annee, Tanti Auguri, Freues Neues.

 

 

HAIL-MARY SWISH

There’s a basketball rim behind the agency that stands several feet below regulation. It’s supported by a plastic base that tends to fill with water, broken glass, and cigarette butts. The court is smaller than your kitchen, unless your kitchen is a galley on a boat; it’s made of brick and weeds and bordered by abandoned patio furniture. Beyond that, the miracle of grass.

It’s good for little but playing H-O-R-S-E, which I’ve done in blazing sun, swarms of gnats, and even cold, though not lately—it’s probably been twelve months or more since I’ve taken clients there. Different clients, different interests. My basketball, bought four years ago for work, sits deflating under the desk where I sit typing copious notes, community mental health’s Sisyphean task.

I don’t miss those outside sessions, which always made me feel like I was in the wrong place, wishing I were in the right one. I’m still working out to this day where exactly that place will prove to be, ultimately. I do sometimes, though, think about a middle school boy I saw early in my employment. He was my first truly mandated client and engaged in selective mutism in protest of his mother’s insistence that he attend therapy. The substance of her concern was his childish behaviors at home. I would not be of help, it soon became clear.

Our therapeutic relationship didn’t start strong. The boy complied with an expressive activity straight from a textbook, to choose an animal figure from a jar to represent each member of his family and place them in a constellation of sorts on a labeled paper; but his reasons for choosing each, he kept to himself.

It didn’t finish strong, either; our last visits, as I recall, surpassed mere silence and exceeded recalcitrance to enter territory beyond. While now I might recommend more co-parenting work, at that point on my learning curve, I was advocating to end services, expressing privately to my client’s mom that I would rather he feel supported in his preference than be turned off to therapy for the rest of his life. By then, she and I had had a few one-on-one talks, and I believe the most difficult piece about closing, from her perspective, may have been the loss of someone to hear her own challenges and frustrations with the whole family.

Formal activities work for some kids, but it didn’t take long before my focus shifted, for the duration of the middle phase, to attempting rapport by joining my client in whatever fun could be had. We played War (for the record, the most tedious card game I know) and UNO. There may have been an occasion of popping matchbox cars in a wordless contest; that’s a bit foggy now. Sometimes we went out back to the sorry court described above, clouds passing overhead. I had the idea that if I could impress him with my hoop-shooting skills, the energy of our visits overall might shift. Well, you already know that didn’t happen. But there was one glorious afternoon that lives in my memory…

His younger brother had come along that day, and the decision was made to head for the grass with a small finned foam football that was meant to have good spin, though not when thrown by my hands. My client was animated with unusual verve, in the role of leader. He talked! Mostly to his brother, but still! In a spirit of inspiration and delight, I proposed rules. Instead of just passing and catching or fumbling, whoever dropped the ball would run prescribed laps and then throw the football through the basketball hoop. If a basket was made, play could resume. If not, more laps.

He wasn’t just game, he showed gusto, and the three of us ran around the broken picnic tables until I literally, if dramatically, fell down panting. I think of that day, and the neon-green torpedo catching net, as my Hail-Mary Swish. I gave it my all, and my all was both grounded and free. If my client remembers anything from our time together—ancient history now, in kid years—I hope that’s it. We salvaged something, I think, however small. Not in that case, but in the very best cases, salvage can be salvation.

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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. 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’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

 

 

O FLOURISHING WORD

 

He was not my client, he was my next-door neighbor’s, but I often passed him sprawled in the hall on my way to and from the waiting room and photocopy machine. Sometimes he was with another boy, but mostly he was alone, turning his yearning face up at the sound of any steps.

From my first friendly hello, he wanted to claim my attention. If he had blocks, he wanted me to build something; if he was holding a board book, he wanted help reading. His sweet appeal stopped me in my tracks despite my need to get things done, but his needs ran deeper than a few minutes’ interaction. Because I always had other things to do, over time I weaned myself from crouching for a chat to whisking by or pausing above him like any other adult on the move.

Almost unfailingly I had to ask that he clear sundry diversions from the center of the floor so that people could navigate to offices beyond. My requests always seemed to take him by surprise, as though the bit of variation I tried to work in week by week succeeded in creating brand-new experiences.

“Hi, nice to see you again!” “You look like you’re having fun!” “Wow, did you build that?” I might compliment a racetrack for marbles, or a scene composed in a plastic box of sand. Those openings were my prelude to asking the same old question, after which I made sure to express thanks.

Poor little guy—bounced from home to home, never in his own. His exile to the hall was meant to allow my colleague time to educate current caregivers on his need for love, rather than the kind of respect-based rearing still thought to raise good citizens, wherein respect equals obedience.

During one of our last such encounters, I felt a little self-conscious about asking him to sideline himself yet again. So arms akimbo, I asked, for novelty’s sake, “Now, what do I always say to you when I see you?”

“‘Good job,’” he quoted in reply.

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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. 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’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

 

IN PRAISE OF SUNLIGHT AND ESPRESSO

 

 

The conscious practice of gratitude sometimes needs a little help. Throughout the dark and rainy weeks of mid- and late Fall, it was the promise of an en-route espresso that motivated me out of bed when nothing else did. If I could make time to stop for that, I would have five minutes, maybe ten, that I knew I could savor. You see, I’ve come to dread my job. I hate typing this here, with such finality, in a space I’d consecrated for inspiration. I care as much as ever about my clients, and feel their faces and voices and stories intertwined with my own. But before, between, and after client visits, I’m in agony to leave and be done. A bureaucratic setting is not for me; I need to work for myself. And, importantly, I need to write. I dream the plots of stories—characters and predicaments that I want to see on the page. I hate typing this, too, in a way, because it gives me such a concrete challenge, one that others might hold me accountable to. What if I don’t have what it takes? To which I answer myself—and you, if you hold similar doubts—joy, heart-throbbing joy, is always worth the risk. I hope to keep reflecting on my tenure in community mental health; there is so much to say. I rely on 2019, however, to be a year of change.

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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. 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’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage! Thank you for your visit—and all good things in 2019!