Saturday, August 27, 2011

You wouldn't believe me if I told you (Part 2)

If you haven’t read Part 1 of this post, go read that first here: Part 1.  Tuesday was certainly the highlight of the week.  But I guess if you think about it, few things can top an earthquake on the East coast.  So, when Tuesday ended with a…rumble (literally…there was at least one small aftershock I felt), I was seriously grateful.
Enter Wednesday.  Peak of the week, as my college professor used to say.  Still feeling uneasy about taking the metro and going underground, I decided to drive to work.  Sat in traffic, but I made it in with no problem.  Everyone at work was pretty on edge, as if we were waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop—only this shoe was going to shake the ground we stood on.  A ceiling tile fell out of the ceiling again when the door to the locked part of the clinic slammed, but other than that, all was well.  We laughed every time somebody made a phone call and mentioned the earthquake (i.e. “Hi, this is Autodidact calling you from the behavioral psychology clinic.  I am so sorry I had to cancel your appointment yesterday due to the earthquake, but I was wondering if you would like to reschedule?”  or “Hi, this is Autodidact calling from behavioral psychology, how are you?  Oh good.  I’m sorry I didn’t return your call sooner, we had to close the clinic yesterday due to the earthquake, but I got your message and…”).    
Wednesday was stressful only because I was trying to catch up from Tuesday, I had a bunch of scheduled clients, and my supervisor was going to be observing me with my clients.  Then, a little after lunch, I got a phone call on my cell from a number I didn’t recognize.  Answering the phone, it was a recording from my gas and electric company telling me everything they are doing to prepare for the impending hurricane, and letting me know everything I should do to ensure my preparedness.  Make sure I have water, a full tank of gas in my car, canned food items…they are mobilizing extra people and resources for support…if they wanted to incite mass panic, I’m sure they did.  Take a group of people who aren’t even 24 hours away from an earthquake and start leaving phone messages about a “dangerous storm” supposed to hit in 3 days, and you have a recipe for panic.  No worries, though.  It’s all good.  So Wednesday, before I leave, I get a phone call from my 87-year-old grandmother who is in the hospital recovering from hip surgery, telling me to ask my dad to call her about why my uncle ordered a brain scan, and whether or not she has a brain tumor.  This erupted into all sorts of family drama (but to cut a long story short, she’s fine, and there was never a question about whether or not she has a brain tumor.  My uncle wanted a brain scan because of her increasing memory issues, but I didn’t know this at the time).
So I leave work pondering clients, supervision, hurricanes, and brain tumors, and am glad to get in my car rather than take the metro.  I drive about 10 minutes, I’m not even out of the city yet, when I hit trouble.  Or rather, someone else hit trouble.  Or maybe we should just say the hit caused trouble, because a big SUV 3 cars ahead of me hit a pedestrian.  I didn’t really see him get hit, but I definitely saw a person kind of thrown in front of the SUV, and the SUV and both cars in front of me slammed on their brakes.  Several cars on the other side of the freeway stopped, two nurses got out of one car and started attending to the pedestrian, and a woman got out of the SUV, looking scared out of her mind, and already on her cell phone.  About two other cars stopped, and several other pedestrians rushed over.  I couldn’t see what happened beyond that and, honestly, I wasn’t really looking, as I was mainly sitting and praying for the man that got hit, and then attempting to get back into a moving lane of traffic once an ambulance and a policeman arrived.  We can safely say that I was a little shaken up.  (In case you’re keeping count, we’re up to 1 earthquake, 1 impending hurricane, 1 potential brain tumor, and a run-over pedestrian).
There was another aftershock that woke me up at 1:00 AM Thursday morning.
Which brings me to Thursday.  I took the metro on Thursday, deciding that the drive is probably as risky as the metro at this point (or, more accurately, that I can’t win for losing with this commute and might as well do what’s the least painful).  I got into work and prepped for my first client, who decided to no-show.  Beautiful.  I do some paperwork and then sit on hold with a kid’s school for 20 minutes when my pager goes off with a “411” page.  I hang up the phone and call the front desk.  “Hi Autodidact,” says Ms. Sherry* at the front desk, “do you have an appointment with Jeremy* today?”
“Jeremy?” I ask, pulling up my calendar.  There is no Jeremy in my calendar.  I go to the next week.  Jeremy is definitely scheduled for NEXT week at 10.
“Yes ma’am.  Jeremy, his mother, and his 5 siblings are here in the waiting room and they say they have an appointment with you at 10:00 today.  Can you see them?”
“Well…uhhh…” I pause.  Jeremy and his mother and his 5 siblings come from across town on the bus.  Jeremy’s mother works the night shift.  She probably hasn’t been to bed yet.  “Sure,” I said.  “I’ll see them.”
“Okay, I’ll let the family know.”
“Thanks, Ms. Sherry,” I say.
“Oh, and Auto?” she continues.  “Jeremy is having a tantrum out here in the lobby, so you might want to come out soon.”  We hang up.  Super.  I look at my schedule again—this means I will have straight back to back clients from 10-3.  Fantastic.
So I go see Jeremy, and Jeremy tantrums for about 45 minutes of our hour.  His five siblings are bopping around the treatment room like little balls in a pinball machine.  I can’t even hear mom to talk, but we muddle through and get to the end of the session right as my pager goes off, informing me my 11:00 has arrived.
I see Jeremy and his family to the lobby, clean up the treatment room, and set up for my next client, Patrick.*  Patrick is a 5-year-old with communication delays and behavior issues.  Patrick’s family has been homeless on and off for the past couple years, but have finally found housing with a friend.  This week, mom came in with a different set of problems: she suspects her friend’s son is being sexually abused, and is worried that he will start acting out and hurt her children.  She didn’t think anything had happened with her boys yet, but with a toddler and a barely verbal 5 year old, we can’t exactly get a full report. 
So, after hearing the whole story and circling around it a few times to get more information, I tell Patrick’s mom I need to go check-in with a supervisor, as this may be something I have to report.  Both of my supervisors are at a different building for the day, so I try to find the supervisor-on-call from another clinic.  She’s in session and another supervisor is in supervision.  I decide to interrupt her.  I explain the situation and ask whether I need to report.  There are no clear answers, as the whole situation is a little fuzzy.  We circle around the issue, she gives me her opinion on how to handle it, but tells me to interrupt the supervisor-on-duty.  I do, we talk, and I go back into session.  I explain things to mom, we’re wrapping up the session, and I get 3 pages in quick succession.  Page 1: 911.  Page 2: My 12:00 has arrived.  Page 3: 911.  I call back the extension for the first 911 page and there is no answer.  I excuse myself from session again and go back to the supervisor’s office, which is who I suspected paged me, and it was.  She consulted with a third supervisor, who had more recommendations for me.  On my way back, I go to the front desk regarding the second 911 page, and learn that it was because my 12:00 was being aggressive towards other children in the waiting room.  They just wanted me to hustle my butt along in case.  I go back to the treatment room, talk to mom, and spend 10 minutes making sure she understands and is going to follow through with my recommendations.  By the time I get her out the door, it is 12:15. 
I clean up the treatment room, and get ready for my next session as fast as possible.  “Getting ready” for this session involves taking all the furniture out of the treatment room, aside from a chair for mom, and 2 small chairs for me and client, because this client is the sort who will climb, push, and throw anything possible.  Personally, I don’t feel like getting hit with a flying table.  Into the treatment room we go, his behaviors start about 5 minutes later, and soon we’re into time-outs, restraints, screaming, kicking, hitting, and biting.  Once he’s compliant (he had to sit in the chair for 10 seconds…which he did…after a 20 minute tantrum), I pull out 2 toy trains as I try to talk to mom.  As soon as I turn my face away from him, he starts tantruming again…screaming, throwing toys, throwing shoes, and taking off his shirt.  I take the toys and tell him he can have his train back as soon as he sits in the chair.  Mom and I continue to talk, ignoring his behavior, which escalates every time we glance in his direction.  Unable to get the attention he wants, and unwilling to be compliant, he decides to pull out all the stops: he pulls down his pants and underwear and looks directly at mom.  I had seen this coming, and told mom we would ignore it, but mom just couldn’t.  As soon as he made eye contact, she jumped up, exclaiming, “DON’T YOU DARE PEE ON THAT FLOOR!”
With a huge grin on his face, and laughter spilling out of every inch of his little body, my little friend promptly peed ALL over the treatment room.  And I do mean ALL over the treatment room. 
Another 20 minute time-out tantrum (followed by 10 seconds of compliance!), my little friend was finally calm and played nicely with trains.  At about 1:15, my favorite client ever leaves, leaving me with a huge to-be bruise on my knee where he got me with his cute little galoshes, and another under my arm.  I tell my good friend Ms. Sherry at the front desk that treatment room 1 needs to be cleaned, put the necessary “warning” and “out of order” signs on the door, and I get my next client. 
Next client is a little cutie I hadn’t met before with a mother who wouldn’t give me any information.  It wouldn’t have been so bad, as I’m rather used to that, except for the fact that I had not had breakfast or lunch, and I was utterly exhausted from my “sprinkling wonder” client before.  Normally, conversations like this don’t frustrate me, but…well…I was tired.  And hungry.  And increasingly grumpy.
“His behavior is bad,” mom says.
“Okay,” I say.  “Tell me what is bad about his behavior.”
“It’s bad,” she says.  “Real bad.”
“Hmm,” I say.  “Tell me more.  Is he having tantrums, or not listening to you…”
“Oh yeah,” she says.  “He does that.”
“Why don’t you tell me about the last time he had bad behavior.”
“Well…” says mom, “that’s hard to say…”
“Does he have bad behavior every day?”
“Most times.  It’s a lot.”
“Is it multiple times a day?”
“Sometimes it might be.”
“Is there ever a day when he has a good day all day?”
“I can’t really remember.”
“So you said he has tantrums.  What does he do during a tantrum?”
“Oh wow, Ms. Auto, you should see it.  It’s real bad.  He just get to acting bad and is just bad all over.”
“I understand that.  Is he yelling or screaming?”
“Oh yeah.”
“How about kicking, hitting, biting, scratching…”
“Oh yeah.”
“What else happens while he’s having a tantrum?”
“Well…that’s hard to say.”
And so it goes.  Really, not so bad.  Pretty typical conversation, actually.  But I was tired.  And hungry.  And frustrated.  So I finish up with that client at about 2:15, and then see my last kid for the day, whose mother lies to me throughout the session.  I call her out on her lies, she gets angry, but we work through it, all the while trying to stop this little 5 year old girl from eating the lint off of the carpet.  This session also goes late, so it’s about 3:30 when I finally finish up.  I go eat my lunch (or maybe it was breakfast…or dinner…who really knows at that point), return emails and phone calls, and decompress for a few minutes before my final client arrives.
After my final client, I sit down next to Matt in the office.  “Was that your room clear-out I saw?” he asks.
“Yep,” I say, typing my progress note.
“Was that your room with the “out of order” sign on the door?”
“Yep,” I say, starting to laugh.
“Was that your client that screamed through the whole session?” he asked.
“Which of the 3 since 10:00 this morning are you referring to?” I ask, laughing.
“Why are you smiling right now?” he asks, laughing, “More importantly, what are you still doing here?  Go home and have a drink.”
I go home that night and have two terrible dreams.  I question why the heck I feel so stressed out and why I can’t just handle all this better.  I get about 3 hours of sleep that night.
Friday!  Thank heavens.  I ride the train into work with the guy in the dress with the headphones selling perfume out of the bullet holder thing, see a couple clients, finish up some paperwork and come home.  Everybody keeps telling me to go buy water and make sure I have food in the house for the impending hurricane, so I go to the store, which is of course sold out of water, flashlights, and batteries.  I call my sisters, clean up a bit, and decide to decompress for a while.  I take a shower, paint my fingernails, and watch a movie.  I’m feeling myself slow down a bit when I get a phone call.  It’s a sort-of friend calling with some very not good news regarding a mutual friend.  She’s crying, we game plan a little crisis management to enact if the situation arises, and get off the phone.  I turn off the movie, thoroughly grumpy, pour the remainder of my cup of tea down the sink, take 2 Tylenol PMs and go to sleep.  Thank God whatever help-you-sleep magic they put in there prevents me from dreaming—or, at least, from remembering my dreams.
This morning, I woke up early, went to visit my grandmother at the hospital (always  a trip…but that’s a story for another time), and came home.  It’s raining, but not hard yet…but I guess I better go and finish washing my clothes before Hurricane Irene harrives.  A perfect end to the week, no?
Yes, dear readers, as I stated way back at the beginning, all of this is 100% true and, believe it or not, abbreviated.  Sometimes, real life is stranger than fiction.
*All names have been changed

Friday, August 26, 2011

You wouldn't believe me if I told you (Part 1)

Have you ever had the sense that, if you were to tell someone about your life lately, they wouldn’t believe you?  Welcome to my week!  In trying to assess WHY on EARTH I could POSSIBLY be so tired, and why in the WORLD I am having totally wacked out dreams, I realized that maybe…maybe…this week has been a little strange.  I assure you, everything I tell you here is 100% true for no other reason than I could not make this up if I tried.  I’m exhausted and having dreams that are waking and keeping me up.  There’s no energy left in my body for creativity.  This is, as they say, just the facts.
So let me give you a little back story.  In case you haven’t realized yet, my life is a little crazy.  My baseline for “crazy” is likely a little different from other folks.  I mean, just in regards to work, I can go from listening to a little girl sing a song I can’t understand that is supposedly about a carrot that lives in a submarine (and then seeing the little girl have a tantrum because she wants the submarine, and she wants a carrot in it, goddamnit!) to talking to a mother about how her son has never had any medical problems (nope, no medical problems…seriously, nope, no medical problems)…except for the asthma, 2 blood transfusions, 2 months in the NICU, 3 hospitalizations, being born at 33 weeks gestation, and the 2 outpatient surgeries.  After that, maybe I’ll see the mother who tells me she doesn’t know anything about her kids development because she was incarcerated for 3 years and her kid’s only 4, and then I’ll round out the day coming up with a treatment plan for a little dude who masturbates 4+ hours per day.  Yeah.  This, my friends, is my normal, and that didn’t touch on life outside of work.
Monday was a normal day.  Or at least, I don’t remember it.  Monday actually could have been very memorable, but Tuesday wiped out all memory of Monday, so let’s just start there.
Tuesday.  It started out as a normal Tuesday.  Took the metro into work.  Did not meet any crazy people on the train.  I have to be to work early on Tuesdays because we have our weekly two hours of torture fascinating lectures.  I arrived on-time, listened to a boring-as-hell riveting lecture on movement disorders, and then went up to my desk.  On Tuesday, two of my colleagues and I have to take a shuttle to another building downtown, and we frequently stop at Starbucks and talk for a bit before we go in for our meeting.  This Tuesday, we did just that: caught the shuttle to our other building, went in Starbucks for a caffeine fix after the snoozer of a lecture lecture that managed to hold my rapt attention for two hours, and then we sat outside on a bench, enjoying the fact that we were outside while there was still daylight.  Went to the meeting for two hours, hopped back on the shuttle, and made it back to the original building with 20 minutes to spare before my first client of the day. 
Let me take a break for a moment and tell you about this client.  I’ve only seen this client once, but I was warned by her prior therapist.  This little girl and her cousin live with their elderly grandparents.  Grandma brings them to session, and it wasn’t the little girl I was warned out.  It’s grandma.  Grandma has significant health problems and, in the words of the prior clinician, “I was worried every single session that granny was going to die on the couch.”  When I told my supervisor who I was seeing this week, his comment was, “Oh THAT kid…is grandma still alive?”  Seriously.  She apparently had pneumonia for 6 weeks and didn’t realize it.  When I saw her the first time, she didn’t look bad: she had been in the hospital, gotten the pneumonia cleared up, and she was back, better than ever I suppose.  I was supposed to have a second session with them two weeks ago, but got a phone call from grandpa that they had to cancel because grandma was in the hospital due to a heart attack.  Yikes.  I didn’t expect Granny to come in on Tuesday, kinda figured they might no-show me…but they arrived 15 minutes early and were ready to go.  About 10 minutes before their appointment, I walked past them in the lobby to grab some papers and told them I would be with them soon.  Granny looked bad.  I now understand why the previous therapist was worried.  It just couldn’t be good.
So I go back to my desk, and frantically trying to pull together all my progress notes and make sure they’re all signed, dated, and copied.  Progress notes are due at 2, and it’s now about 1:50.  I’m standing at my desk, signing the last progress note, when suddenly, there is a noise.  A loud noise, and it feels like the room shakes.  Wow, I think, somebody must have a really aggressive, big kid in the lobby that just banged the hell out of the door.  But the shaking continued.  And continued.  I look at my officemates, who stare back at me with the same open mouthed expression.
“Oh my God,” one of them says.  “Are we having an earthquake?”  We stand, frozen, staring at each other as things start to fall off of the desks, file drawers start to slide open, and the shaking intensifies. 
“Everybody get in the doorways,” shouts “Helen,” the supervisor-on-duty from the other side of the hall.  We all move to the doorway, and as I’m walking, I realize I’m moving sideways and not forward, and I have to lean on a file cabinet for a split second to get my legs back under me so I don’t fall.  For the first time in my life, one thought only is going through my head: This is real.  People die in earthquakes. This could be it.  One of my other colleagues, “Anna,” is still sitting at her desk with the phone in her hand, open-mouthed, staring at us.  I grab her hand as I walk by and she stands and follows me.
There are five of us in the doorway, trying to squeeze together as much as possible, squeezing each other’s hands, touching each others’ shoulders, just to connect.  We barely know each other, but we need that connection.  Another colleague, “Matt,” opens the heavy door to the staff only part of the clinic and, as he does, a ceiling tile smashes down in front of him.  “Holy shit!” he exclaims, and jumps into the doorway nearest him.
“GET IN THE DOORWAYS,” yells Helen, trying not to sound panicked.
“It’s alright,” he says.  “We are.”
Boxes of files fall off of the top of the cabinet near us, stacks of papers and coloring pages fall to the floor, and prize boxes fall off the tops of shelves and crash onto the ground, and the intense shaking subsides.
We are silent for a moment.  “Are we still moving?” Anna asks.
“Stay where you are,” says Helen.  “Nobody move.  Just stay put.”  She sounds considerably calmer.  Almost like she’s breathing again.  We don’t move.
“We are still moving, aren’t we?” Anna asks again.
“I think so,” I say, still feeling the slight tremors under my feet.  It’s like that feeling when you’re on a swing that you let just slow to a stop, when you’re just barely moving. 
“Holy shit,” Matt says from the other doorway again.
“Is everybody okay?” Helen asks.  “Who’s out there?”  We tell her. 
“We’re fine,” we say, still not moving. 
One of the administrative staff, “John” pokes his head in, frantic.  “Is everybody okay?” he asks.  He walks around, sees where we are, observes the damage, and tells us not to move.  John and Helen go out into the clinic.  A minute later they return. 
“Everybody out,” they say.  “We’re evacuating.  Go down to the playground.”  We turn and go down the four flights of steps, starting to talk and breathe and laugh to diffuse the anxiety of it all.  Outside, we start looking for our clients.  Mine is nowhere to be seen.  I keep looking.  And looking.  And looking.  I can’t find them.
I wait as I see a few more people come out of the building.  Not them.  I wait.  And I wait. 
“I don’t see my client,” I say nervously to Matt.  “Grandma had a heart attack two weeks ago, she can’t walk well, she’s got a cane…I don’t know if she could make it down the steps.”
“Holy shit,” he says again, the rest of his vocabulary apparently gone.
I wait what feels like 3 more hours, and then go to approach the supervisor, ask her what the hell I should do.  As I walk up to her, I see Client, Cousin, John, and Grandma come out of the building.  Grandma looks completely done in, and John looks like he had to carry all 250 lbs of her down 4 flights of steps.  My client and her cousin stand close to grandma, wide-eyed and silent.
Resisting the urge to hug them or John, I approach them, calmly and professionally.  “Are you guys okay?” I ask, looking at grandma first.
“I can’t do steps,” she wheezes.  “I gots to sit down.”
I look around.  The closest place to sit is in a cement covered walkway.  Probably not the best idea, but granny looks like she is seriously going to collapse.  “Let’s get you a seat over here,” I say.  “We might need to move in a moment, but let’s get up here so you can sit down first.”
We take slow, painstaking steps to the bench.  Grandma sits down and I let her catch her breath.  She looks up at me, confused.  “Felt like an earthquake,” she says.
“I’m pretty sure that’s what it was,” I say.  I look to my little client, still wide-eyed and clutching her grandmother’s purse.  “That was pretty scary, wasn’t it?” I say to her.  She nods, chin quivering.  “But feel right now?  Nothing is shaking.”  I stomp my feet on the ground.  “It’s okay,” I tell her, taking her hand and looking in her big brown eyes.  Cousin sidles in to be part of the conversation.  I take her hand with my other one.  “Earthquakes happen when big things like rocks move waaaay down deep underground.  It makes things shake like we just felt.”  They nod again.  My client has a significant cognitive disability and language disorder, so I’m pretty sure she’s not understanding.  We take a deep breath together, and their little shoulders drop a bit.  “Look,” I say pointing, “Granny is okay, Cousin is okay, Client is okay, and Autodidact is okay.”  She nods again.  I ask grandma if she is okay to move.  It’s quite a walk to the picnic benches.
“I don’t know if I can make it,” she tells me.  “But I’ll try.”  We inch our way across the parking lot until we get to the picnic bench.  I tell the girls to stay with granny and go back to find out what’s going on. 
Somebody does an inspection of the building: apparently our floor, the 4th floor, was hit the hardest.  There are several ceiling tiles out, and 2 light fixtures fell, one of which hit another client in the head.  We’re told it is safe to go back into the building.  We look to Helen.  “What do we do about our clients?” we ask.  We’re all talking at once, telling her how many clients we have left for the day, how many of us have clients here now, what time our clients are expected to come.  She stops us.
“Are you guys okay?” she asks for what feels like the hundredth time.
We start telling her again, asking what to do about the clients who are here now, if we should see them, should we bill for half an hour, can we bill at all, can we get a hold of our other families…
“No,” she says stopping us.  “Everybody stop and listen to me.”  She looks at Anna.  “You start.  I am asking you: are you okay to see clients?  Are you emotionally okay to see clients right now.”  Anna stops, quiet for a moment. 
“I…well…I have a client coming at 3,” she says.
“Okay,” Helen says, giving up on us.  “Let me go try to call some other supervisors, see what they say, and go look upstairs and see what’s happening.  Just tell your clients to wait out here.”  About 10 minutes later, Helen comes back to tell us we’re closing and to tell our clients to go home.  I go talk to grandma, make sure she has transportation to get home, help her get into a cab, and go upstairs.
The fourth floor looks…well…it looks like an earthquake happened.  There is debris everywhere.  The office is a mess with papers and files and open drawers.  We’re told to call our clients and cancel the rest of our appointments, but we can’t dial out.  We try, document that we tried, and Helen tells us to leave.  We congregate in the hallways, trying to figure out where everyone is going.  The shuttle that takes my colleagues home isn’t running, and public transportation has stopped.  There is no way I was getting on the metro anyway…I mean seriously, a shooting silver bullet underground not even an hour after a freakin’ earthquake just doesn’t sound like a good idea to me.  This also means that I have no way of going home.
Everyone else lives close enough that we can walk, although we have to walk down a relatively sketchy street, in a pretty sketchy area.  We decide that we will walk everyone home, have them check out their houses and be sure they’re okay, and that I will go to “Corinne’s” house while I figure out what to do.  A group of 6 of us leave the office and start walking.  Everywhere, people are out on the streets talking, surveying the damage.  There are bricks lying on the sidewalk, a collapsed chimney, pieces of gutters in our path.  People look at us as we pass.  “Are you okay?” we ask, as they stare at us from their front stoop.
“Things just got shook up,” one lady with a naked baby says.
“We all right, praise the Lord,” says an older woman sitting with 5 children around her.
We make our way over to Ann Street.  A group of men to our right is yelling about one guy owing somebody else money and we keep walking.  Somebody jumps into a car to our left and pulls out into the road and, suddenly, there is a loud, horrific noise, followed by silence, and then by strings of expletives.  Apparently, the man who jumped into the car didn’t look before pulling out, and a car that was plowing down Ann Street far too fast hit the front left corner of his car and pulled off half the bumper.  They immediately start yelling at each other, and Matt, as the only guy in the group, says, “holy shit,” and then tells us all not to stop, not to look, and to keep walking.  All of us in our dress shoes and work clothes speed-walk down Ann Street as fast as possible, rubbing new blisters into our toes with every step, but not daring to stop and fix the shoe.    
“A f***ing car accident?  An earthquake AND a f***ing CAR ACCIDENT right in front of us?!” we exclaim, in turn, as it sinks in what just happened. 
We drop everyone off, one by one, at their apartments.  They run in and come back out to tell us: “everything’s fine.  A couple pictures are crooked, something fell off the shelf, but it’s all fine.”  We’re amazed, and we keep walking. 
When only Matt, Corinne and I are left, we go to Corinne’s apartment, where I finally get a hold of my father, who is fine, and then my mother, who is also fine, and had been at the hospital in Baltimore down the street visiting my grandmother.  I ask if she can come pick me up when she’s finished and drive me to the metro station to get my car.  A policeman we asked on the walk home said he wasn’t sure when the metro would be opening again, but that it would definitely be down for a few more hours at least.  At Corinne’s apartment we turn on the television and learn that it was a 5.9 earthquake that shook us.
“Holy shit,” says Matt.
A while later, my mom comes to pick me up, and it takes us 2 hours to get home and out of the grid-locked city.  Aside from a small aftershock that woke me up that night, Tuesday is over.
…To Be Continued…

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Crocheting the Bridge

With all the writing I do about stories, I feel like a Sally One Note.  I apologize.  If you don’t feel like reading my writing about writing again, please proceed to the nearest exit.  There will be something not about writing at some point.  I encourage you to keep coming back and checking in.
Anybody left?  Oh, good.  Ah, all…2 of you.  Fantastic.  Now, before we proceed any further, watch this video.  It provides some context for what I’m going to say…or maybe it just kind of sparked it, I don’t know.  But you should watch it anyway.

All 1 of you back?  Great.  Thanks for reading, friend.
Dorothy Allison says, “I wanted to break the heart of the world and heal it.”  This line gives me chills.  The way she spoke in general had me mesmerized, left me with goosebumps.  That lady is intense.  Before hearing this and relying on Google to tell me who she was, I had never heard of her.  She’s the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, which I haven’t read, but have heard about in that it’s intense.  Even before I knew this, though, I could tell: this woman gets it.  She is a woman with a story.  The way she talks.  The way she says things.  The way I can feel my heart tugging in my chest—she means every single word she’s saying.  She is a powerful woman.  A woman with a story.
I am not Dorothy Allison, though, and as much as that line resonates with me, and as much as I understand that sentiment with every fiber of my being, and as much as it resounds in my cells and makes my body shiver, that it not how I would word it.  The heart of the world is already broken.  I want to expose the fault lines so we can move towards wholeness.  I want to name the cracked places, take people to the edge, have them look down into the abyss of the center.  I can’t heal the heart of the world.  I can’t heal the broken places.  I merely want to take people to the cracks and show them they can paint murals on the rubble.  I want to take the people who believe their square of the world is the only one that’s cracked to the other side, another square, another crack.  I want them to take photos of the places where the crack looks just the same and the demons exposed in the cracks in that other person’s square are also their demons.  Where the noxious smell coming from the cracks is the same as the smell from their crack.  I want to take them where the bleeding, broken places look and feel just the same, and I will not say anything but let them hear the story of the breaking.  Perhaps they will cry in the knowledge that others are breaking.  That others have broken.  Perhaps they will laugh for ever believing they were alone in the brokenness.  Perhaps they will get busy loving the broken heart of the world, or inventing zippers for broken souls, or sewing quilts to patch up the broken parts.  Or maybe they will continue living their lives as if nothing has changed, or maybe they will rip open the broken pieces with every inch of muscle.  I cannot heal the heart of the world.  I can only drag people to the broken parts and make them see those cracked and empty places so they can crochet bridges no one can walk across in hopes of building firmer structures.  I will stand with them as they throw those crocheted bridges to the other side of the breaking in a gesture of solidarity.   
We all have fault lines and cracks in our lives, and therefore in our stories.  Dorothy Allison also says, “I wanted more out of story—I wanted something large out of story.”  We reach that “something large” through walking to the broken parts and peering in.  Through taking others to our broken places.  The broken places in us are the broken places of the world: my breaking splits open the corresponding crack in the Earth.  When we story our lives—our hills and valleys and earthquakes and deserts—we undoubtedly make something large.  There is no way we cannot.  By storying, we are choosing to throw a shovelful of dirt over the crack.  When we story our lives, we are healing the world.  There is no way that cannot be large.  It’s huge, and it’s necessary.
“But mostly,” Dorothy Allison says, “I want to be a story that reaches people.  The way you do.  The way you do.”
I want to be a story because stories matter.  They reach people.  They crawl into your heart, or soak into your skin, or infiltrate your bloodstream and circulate your body and stay there.  I want my story to touch people so they can stand a little straighter.  Love a little deeper.  Connect a little more easily.  I want the story of my life to make people go to the edge of the depth, look inside, and do whatever it is they do with more intensity, more love, more passion.  Maybe they dance.  Maybe they love their children.  Maybe they advocate in big cities to high ranking people for something that makes them feel alive, or maybe they advocate about something that makes them die inside again and again and again.  I have no plans of doing big things.  I just want to live life quietly, out loud, in a voice that makes skeptics shiver and take cover.  I want to be a story that matters in a way you can’t explain that still leaves you feeling full, tired, and changed.  Uncomfortable, perhaps.  I want to be the story that matters so much, you retell it to your friends and family.  Perhaps it touches your story, and so you write it, and the torch is passed. 
I want to take you to and be taken to the cracks in the heart of the world, and I want us to love them.  I want to paint murals in the debris and make stone soup with the leftovers.  I want to be a story that matters and I want to hold your story and love it in its broken intensity and wholeness.  Just like you do.  Just the way you do.
If you need me, you’ll find me crocheting a bridge no one can walk across, hoping one day it’s long enough to throw across the cracks, in an action of solidarity.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Mosquito Story

I have a serious mosquito problem.  I seriously have at least 20 mosquito bites on me right now and, when I get mosquito bites, I don’t just get little mosquito bites.  Nope, the whole darn thing swells up and looks like a shoved a cherry tomato under my skin and painted the spot red to match.  It’s ridiculous.  I get at least one every time I take the dog out but, no matter, how many times I tell him, Marshall just won’t find the magic place to poop any faster. 
So being covered in mosquito bites reminds me of my favorite mosquito bite story and, since I’m procrastinating doing important things like…dishes…I’ll tell you the mosquito story.  This is a pretty typical “me” story.  I don’t know what it is about me and my luck, but this just tends to be how things go.
I taught my first undergraduate class about 2 years ago.  Fall quarter, I was 23, had never taught anyone above the age of 8, and had no clue what I was doing.  Plus, I was nervous.  First day of class, I was entirely too dressed up, but I looked GOOD, if I do say so myself.  I may have felt incompetent, but I was dressed like a super professional.  I still don’t think I managed to look older than 23, but I was about as put-together as I could possibly be, and I was ready.  Oh boy was I ready.  I was going to impress the heck out of those undergraduates.  I don’t know if I impressed them or not, but I managed not to make a fool of myself.  I didn’t fall off the heel of my shoe.  I didn’t sweat through my shirt.  I didn’t have my skirt tucked into my underwear like my English teacher did that one time.  I even got all the AV equipment to work.  I was very much a “this is my first time teaching” teacher, and very much a “most of you are older than me so I’m going to make you listen to me and respect me whether you like it or not” teacher, but it worked.  I relaxed a bit after that first impression was made (and relaxed a lot after that first quarter), but the first impression was important for me.
Because I consistently worked approximately 6 different jobs while going to school full time, I also worked doing in-home Applied Behavior Analysis/Verbal Behavior therapy with kids with autism spectrum disorders.  This job was very different from my teaching job.  This was primarily a weekend job, and I worked for these families for several years.  While I tried to look somewhat put-together going into work in the morning, it was very much Saturday morning, and I was dressed as though I was prepared to deal with spitting, biting kiddos while jumping on the trampoline holding soy milk and all-natural chicken strips because…well…that’s exactly what I did.  By the time I got to my Saturday afternoon kid’s house, I looked like I had been pulled through a knothole backwards, and by the time I got home…well…the clothes went straight in the hamper and I went straight into the shower.
This one particular Saturday was pretty rough.  My morning kiddo and I went swimming in the family pool, then jumped on the trampoline and worked on language while jumping for about an hour and a half.  It was end of August/beginning of September, and it was HOT.  I usually had about an hour between sessions to eat lunch and drive to the other kid’s house, so when I finished with kid 1, I got in my car, pulled out my lunch, and realized I forgot my drink.  “That’s okay,” said I, “I’ll just go up here to the gas station and buy a bottle of water.”
So I get in the car, get ready to go, and it starts to rain.  Hard.  No problem, I roll up the windows, crank up the AC, and figure it’s all good.  And then I hear it: a high-pitched whine right around my ear.  I swat and it, momentarily, disappears.  Then it’s back with its high-pitched whine around my other ear.  I swat that ear.  Then I see them…and there are two of them.  “Bloody hell,” I state—a curse phrase I adopted from my grandmother.  They both seem to disappear as I make my way towards the gas station, and then the bumps appear: first one on my arm.  One on my knee.  “For real?” I state, getting seriously annoyed as I’m trying to see through the pouring rain.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  But then I feel it—the slight sting you can sometimes feel—and I feel it on my face.  “Come ON!”  I pull into the gas station, slide into a parking spot, and look in the rear view mirror: I have not one, but two, huge, growing, red cherry tomatoes on my face.  One is on my forehead and the other is on my cheek, and they are, quite seriously, huge.  And red.  Very red.  Plus, I have pool hair that’s knotted up on top of my head, and I look like I’ve jumped on a trampoline for two hours in 180 degree heat because…well…that’s what I did.  One look in the mirror, and I realize there is no way I’m going into that gas station.  It’s not that I thought I would see people I knew, I just didn’t want to call attention to myself with my messy pool hair, my sweaty clothing, and the 2 cherry tomatoes growing on my face. 
But I was still thirsty.  Really thirsty.  “Aha!” I figured, always resourceful,” I’ll just go through the drive-through at Chick-Fil-A right here.  That way, I’ll see only one person, and I don’t care if one person sees me…it’s nobody I know, and it’s not like a whole convenience store full of people.  Perfect!”  Pleased with my solution, I proceeded to the Chick-Fil-A to get my water after managing to squish the offending insects to the windshield.  (Doesn’t the resulting blood—presumably YOURS—that you see when you squish a mosquito—doesn’t that just add insult to injury?).  By the time I get to the drive-thru, I am so thirsty I have managed to squelch any lingering anxiety about somebody seeing me looking like I’m dying of some rare skin disease.  I place my order at the little box, pull around to the window, say hello to the girl and hand her my change.  She stares at me for a minute.  For real? I say in my head.  Haven’t you seen anybody with pool hair and mosquito bites on their face before?
“HEY,” she says, after a moment.  “I think you’re my teacher.”
Teacher?  What the hell is she talking about?  I’m not a…ohhhh.
“Yeah!” she says.  “You taught my class last week.”
No.  No.  No I don’t.  I didn’t.  I’m pretty sure not.  I have never seen this girl in my life.  I don’t know what she’s talking about.
“Oh?” I say.  I don’t know what else to say, and “Oh?” is about all I can manage.
“Yeah!  I thought it was you!  Don’t you teach Abnormal Psych on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5:45?”
Crap. Is that when I teach?  That’s not when I teach.   I think that is when I teach.  How does she remember me?  We’ve only had one class!
“Oh yes!” I say, pretending like I remember her.  I bet she sat in the back.  And she definitely didn’t say anything.  Maybe she’s the one that left early.
“Yeah!” she says, again.  “I’m “Sarah”.  I sit in the second row, remember?  I asked the question about Prozac, because I’ve been on Prozac for a long time and it’s been really helpful for me.  I work here on the weekends.”
“Ah, yes,” I say.  “Of course!” 
“Well I really like your class so far,” she says.  “I think you’re a good teacher.  I’m really interested in psychology.”
“That’s great,” I say.  How long does it take to get a bottle of water?  A guy hands the bottle to her and she hands it to me.   “I’ll look forward to seeing you in class,” I say, ever polite and professional.
“Yeah, see you in class,” she says.
I’m pretty sure the mosquito bites could have lit my way into a dark cave at this point.  I was embarrassed, so I blushed and my cheeks burned, which made the bites feel like they could positively glow-in-the-dark.  
What are the odds.  What are the freaking odds…
Some day, I'll learn not to be so self-conscious...things like this would probably never happen then because, I'm pretty sure, that's just the way the world works.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

In which I start again

“What I want you to do,” I tell parents who come see me with their tantruming/aggressive/ hyperactive/ difficult/ noncompliant children, “is praise every single time your child does something good.”

“You want me to WHAT!?” they typically ask.

“Praise them!  Every time they do something well, I want you to tell them.  If they aren’t doing anything, but they’re behaving…praise them.  If they’re choosing to use nice words with their sister, praise them.  If they are sitting in the chair instead of throwing it, praise them.  If they’re using their inside voice or keeping their shirt on their body or using their walking feet in the hallway, praise them.”

“But…but…that doesn’t even make sense,” they tell me.  “My kid is TERRIBLE.  He’s a mess.  He throws stuff.  He bites people.  He breaks his sister’s toys.  He never sits still.  He hits me.  He BROKE MY TV SET!”

“I know,” I say, rubbing the place where the kid hit me with a flying toy car.  “I know.  But just think about all the stuff he hears that he SHOULDN’T be doing.  How many sentences do you start with ‘don’t you dare…’ or ‘put that down’ or ‘get back over here’ or ‘stop’ or ‘no’?”  Mom and dad look a little sheepish.

“Right,” I say.  “He gets a LOT of attention for what he does that you DON’T want him to do.  What happens when he does something you DO want him to do?”

“Well, sometimes I say good job!” 

“That’s great!” I say.  “But do you think that occasionally hearing ‘good job’ is going to be enough for 4 year old Johnny to erase everything else he hears that starts with ‘no,’ ‘don’t,’ or ‘stop’?  At first, what you ideally want is 5 positives for every 1 ‘no’ or ‘stop’ you say.  That way, your ‘nos’ are going to mean SO much more.”  I might have made up the 5:1 ratio, but…shhhhh.  It gets my point across.

Ideally, mom and dad walk away and start praising the pants off of little Johnny but, realistically, that never happens.  I saw a kiddo the other day whose mother was so negative and was so on top of her with everything she was doing “wrong,” I finally looked at mom and said, “you know…you told her not to stand near the window…not to play too loudly with the toys…not to put the toys on the table…not to put the toys too far under the chair…not to interrupt us…no wonder she’s throwing a tantrum!  It’s the only thing left TO do!” Mom sort of laughed, and then told the kid not to sit too close to her because she was hot.

I have a little girl I see who stays on my mind after I see her.  This mother is so negative, we have spent 4 weeks on “praise” and haven’t moved anywhere.  Thing is, this kid isn’t even bad.  I heard her whine once.  She has never cried, yelled, screamed, flopped, thrown, bitten, scratched, pinched, hit, kicked, climbed, or pulled anyone’s hair while in session with me. 

“I can’t praise her,” mom says.  “She’s only good for 5 minutes a day.”

“PERFECT!” I exclaim.  “Then we need to make sure we praise those 5 minutes worth of good things.  You want her to do more good things, right?”

“That’s why I’m coming to see you,” she says, dully.

“Exactly.  The way we can get her to do more good things is by praising the good things she already does.  When she learns that THAT is what we want her to do, she’ll want to do it more.”

“But she’s only good for five minutes a day.  I don’t want to praise those five minutes, because she should be doing it all the time.  I don’t want her to come to expect it.  She’s not always going to get praise for brushing her teeth or picking up her toys.  Why should I tell her good job?”

And we start again.

“But she’s only good for five minutes, and she’s a bad child the rest of the time.  She doesn’t deserve praise.”

And we start again.

“You go to work, right?” I ask mom.  “And you get paid for the work you do.  If you went to work and didn’t get paid, would you keep going to work?”

Mom looks at me like I sprouted another head.

“Right,” I say.  “Your reward for working is getting paid.  If I took away your paycheck, you wouldn’t keep working.  Kiddo’s reward for doing something good is praise, or a high-five, or a Skittle.  If she never gets that, why would she continue being good?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“So is going to work.  But if you aren’t getting paid…”

“But it’s different.”

“You’re right.  It is different.  It’s different because she’s 3 and you’re 30.  Going to your job is your work.  Brushing her teeth and listening to adults is her work.”

“But she doesn’t deserve praise.”

And we start again, and again, and again, and I resist the surging desire to take the child home with me so I can praise her and give her high-fives for brushing her teeth, using her walking feet, listening to grown-ups, and talking with an inside voice.

* * * * * * * * * * *

At the end of the day, I sit down on the metro and think, “Well…it’s been 5 weeks and that mom still doesn’t get how to say ‘good job,’ you had 2 typos in your report that you should have caught before you sent it to your supervisor, you should have taught that mom planned ignoring instead of time-out, you forgot to call your client’s social worker, and you didn’t write that kid’s progress note.”

I make lists in my mind of things I need to do when I get home, what I need to do when I go in the next day, and I try to empty my mind of the day’s events as I watch the drug addicts drop chicken all over the train.*  Pretty soon, though, the hamster wheel in my head starts going.  “Five weeks, and you still can’t get that mother to say ‘nice work’ to her kid!  FIVE WEEKS!  And really?  Why did you think planned ignoring was going to work for that behavior?  Your supervisor is going to roll his eyes when he reads that note.  I mean seriously.  And that social worker is waiting for your call.  Why didn’t you remember to call them back?  It was on your to-do list!  Two typos?  Really…I mean, how embarrassing was it that you wrote “ting” instead of “thing” and your supervisor had to bring it up and laugh about it.  It’s called PROOFREADING!  Hell-loooooo!?”**

And then I start again.

“Five weeks?!  Really!?!”

**************

The other day, I was coming home from work, starting the usual dialogue, when suddenly I stopped. 

“You talked to 4 parents today about praising their child’s good behavior.  Where’s the praise?  Where’s the 5:1 ratio?  What did you do well today, huh, HUH!?!”

The small, critical voice inside me is hard to shut up, so it whispers, “Well, you didn't call that kid's social worker, that's for damn sure."

“GOOD THINGS,” I yell at the small, critical voice.

“Oh right,” it says, “I suck at coming up with good things.  There's so little to choose from.

And then, I start again.

“Well…”I think, slowing myself down, thinking purposefully and using planned ignoring on my small critical voice.  “Well…”

Seeing an opening, she jumps in again.  “We both KNOW you didn’t proofread your reports OR your progress notes now did you?”

“I swear to God if you don’t come up with one good thing you did today…”
“Good thing?  Well, your intervention with that one client sure doesn’t fall in THAT category…”

“FIND SOMETHING GOOD TO SAY,” I exclaim (to myself), impatiently.

“Why should I find something good to say,” asks that critical voice, which doesn’t actually seem so small anymore, “when you only do so many ‘good things’ per day, compared with all those things you did wrong?”  Tomorrow, I think, tomorrow I will start again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Remember to praise your beautiful self for everything you did today.  For the ways you touched the lives of others, and the ways you let others touch your life.  For the ways you shared yourself with others and the ways you protected yourself.  For listening to yourself and the world.  Congratulate yourself for making it through another day, for breathing through the moments of stress and frustration, for acknowledging your small critical voice.  Thank yourself for moving you through the day and for engaging in the world again and again.  Give yourself a high-five for taking five minutes for you, or for giving five minutes to someone else.  If all else fails, take a breath, smile, and tell yourself “thank you” for brushing your teeth, for cleaning up your toys, for using your walking feet.   

*Long story for another time...but the gist is that there was a dude, clearly strung out on something, who was eating fried chicken on the train until he passed out, nearly fed a baby a chicken bone, and dropped a chicken bone down a lady’s shirt.  Just another day in the life...

**This may be a slight dramatization of my actual internal dialogue.  I don’t actually talk to myself like this.  I’m typically less animated and sarcastic, for one…but you don’t really want to hear how I talk to myself.  It’s a scary thing.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Creating Nothing

I find that I am fascinated by spaces where there is nothing.  These moments and spaces, they’re everywhere when you stop to notice them.  They’re the moments behind what we call “reality.”

When I play my harp, I play around with the notes, add a roll here or there, and that changes my creation.  But when I focus on the rests—the moments of silence—it changes not only my creation of music but also goes beyond that and makes it my own.  The silence between—the empty space—is where I fall in and become one with the music.  I’ll be honest and say I don’t really know how to read music, so the rests and the counts are all mine anyway…but the Isilence between the noise is what makes the music—and me—come to life.

In my high school years as a dancer, my teacher said again and again to “take a breath!” before the next step.  I never understood what difference it made whether I breathed before the step or not: I couldn’t focus on the movement, pointing my foot, turning my head, balancing, aligning my hips, smiling AND breathing.  It wasn’t until college that I realized what she was looking for: she was looking for the moment of suspension, of nothingness, that comes when one stops to inhale before a movement.  In that breath, everything else stands still and I fall back into my body and accompany myself into the next movement.  It’s in that moment that everything else comes together.

There are other examples, of course.  Meditation.  A creation of nothingness in which everything may be encompassed.  Negative space.  The places between what is there.  What is in these silences and emptiness?   Is it nothing?

Turning somewhat philosophical, nothing is, by the nature of the word, a concept, and a concept is a thing.  Therefore, nothing is something, purely because it must be something as a concept.  And in those moments I described, the nothingness is obviously tangible: the silence, the breath, the presence in meditation, and the negative space.  Those things that make up the nothingness are beautiful.  That which is something could not be known without nothing.  The nothing between the words, the nothing behind the objects, the nothingness we fear, it’s there.  Present.  Real.  And beautiful.

Nothing.  No-thing.  No-thing-ness.  Nothingness. 

As a therapist, I see myself as a creator of space.  A creator of nothing.  And in order to create this nothing, I must also be no-thing.  I must, myself, be full of no-thing-ness.

If you were an eraser...
what would you look like?
Everywhere we go, we are regarded as a thing.  A student.  A therapist.  A sister, brother, daughter, son, husband, mother, wife, lover, partner, employee, client, boss, a teacher.  Even in the places where we know no one, we are still something: a group member, part of the crowd, a customer, a pedestrian, or another car on the road.  Where there are names assigned to who we are or what we do, there are also labels attached to us: a good student, doting daughter, lazy employee, strict teacher, annoying customer, slow pedestrian, or the dirty blue Subaru in the right lane.  When we have those labels, we interact with others as those labels.  When we put those labels on others, we assist them in becoming the labels we assign to them.   It’s impossible to be nothing.

When someone comes in to therapy, they are coming with a lifetime of labels and defenses and barriers and ideas about themselves and others that make it difficult for them to be who it is they want to be, do what they want to do, or live in the way they wish to live.  They wear many masks and are afraid of taking them off.  So, the job of the therapist is to help the client erase the labels, the masks, and the defenses.  You can see where they were, and there will always be a mark—after all, it is impossible to create nothing where there was once something—but the therapist creates a space for the client to grow where there might not have been space before.   She creates a no-thing-ness for the client to fall into, so that becoming himself is possible.   When a parent and child come in, or a couple, the therapist erases the walls between them until they become only scars, allowing them to see one another as themselves, and fall into a relationship in the empty space between them.

The client is the pencil, drawing themselves, their world, their ideas and perceptions and walls and masks based on how the rest of the world is drawing them.  When the drawing becomes too dark, or too filled up, he seeks an eraser to help him make sense of which lines are good and which lines are bad.  He complains of feeling “overwhelmed” by his picture of the world, or “sad” because of the way the world looks, or “anxious” that there are too many lines, or “isolated” behind all the squiggles and lines and marks defining him.  And so the eraser helps the pencil to see which lines are good and helpful and meaningful and necessary and which lines are bad or unhelpful or meaningless or unnecessary.  There will be lines that are too dark and permanent to ever erase, and lines that are so solid they will always be there.  Then the erasers job is just to smooth the line, integrate it into the rest of the picture, or make a tiny space in the middle of it, breaking up the line so there is a place where nothing and anything can slip through. 

I am definitely a cute, kid friendly eraser...
unlike these killer hamster erasers.
Erasers are flexible.  They rarely get bent out of shape.   They are really somewhat innocuous—one generally never thinks about an eraser until it is needed.   Once they have completed their work, they are barely noticed at all.  They create a space where there is nothing, leaving only a memory of what was there.  Yet, as they help to erase, they are also affected—there is a slight mark left on them as well, leaving them connected to the client as only a memory of how a no-thing-ness was created where both client and therapist were able to truly be.  It’s a vague memory of a time when one was able to connect with another in a place where there was nothing, so everything became possible.