Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Some people's lives play like broken records.
The grooves are carved into our skin like scars so they can
play and replay and
play and replay like
the grooves of scars that are carved into our skin, there are
some people whose lives play like broken records.

We've all seen this story before. 
We can read it with our fingertips like
Braille is our native language and we were born with the gift of in-sight
we need only look
to read all about it.

And, I'll admit:
there are days I only believe her because she asks me to.
She won't always do it with her words, but she asks me with her eyes
and the slump of her shoulders
and the way her son holds my hand
or wraps his arms around my neck,
or the way her husband shrugs and looks at his feet
in a gesture of resilience living as shame refusing to name itself.
They open their hearts like sunsets inside kaleidoscopes:
fractured, repeating patterns of glass
reflecting the reflection of the reflection of the reflection of
the world around them.

We are all so broken.
So human in the way we touch one another,
and in the ways we don't, and the ways we can't,
so I don't want to save the world:
I want only to read words like reflections
are my native language, but there are days
when I only believe her because she asks me to and
some people's lives play like broken records.
The grooves run track marks like glass through skin
fracturing the reflection because
we live a resilience that refuses to name itself and
no one cares to notice
there is beauty in the repetition.

And, I'll admit: my record
is scratched and broken.
She sometimes calls me "Doctor," sometimes "Hon,"
occasionally "Love,"
and I just go with it because we both know:
sometimes she has more answers than me,
and schooling doesn't always equal education,
and I know I'm supposed to like when she calls me "doctor" best,
but believe me when I say that some days, it doesn't feel like a compliment, but a scratch
that disrupts our developing melody
so I like it when she calls me "Love"
because that's all I've ever wanted to be.

When they ask me, I give them every cell that looks like belief, but
I don't know if I believe in god.
Some days, it seems that human-kind
-where kind is questionable -
might have a better track record,
so I turn up the volume on the broken records.
We play our songs loud as we spin through space,
our tears punctuating the night with stars like exclamation points
blaming or praising or trying to find the holy we all want to believe is existing
somewhere beyond our fingertips.

We are all so broken,
so kaleidoscopic
in the ways we shatter.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Birthday Surprises

As I sat at Panera this afternoon, pretending to study, I witnessed some version of the following exchange.
Birthday Surprises, or
The story of her life, as overheard in Panera

1.       They sit awkwardly at the table, trying to find the normal that at one time must have fit.
He cuts the muffin, unceremoniously, pushes half towards her,
then checks his phone, glances around, scoots his chair in, then out, then in again,
takes the lid off her coffee cup and asks,
"You want sugar?" 
She nods.

2.       "Take off your coat," he says.  "It's warm in here."
He tears open a Splenda and dumps it in her cup.
"What did you do that for?" she asks, voice rising.
"You wanted sugar, Mom.  You want sugar in your coffee."
"I know," she says, glaring at him.
She pauses, then pats his hand.
"That's okay," she says, smiling.
 "That's just okay."

3.       She tugs on her coat and says, "it's warm in here."
"I know," he says, and takes off her coat without another word.
She picks up her coffee and sloshes it down her pink sweater.
"Oh!" she exclaims, frantically brushing the opposite side from the spill.  "I've ruined it."
He scoots his chair out.  Uncrosses and recrosses his legs.  Hands her a napkin.
"That's okay," he says, glancing around. 
"That's just okay."

4.       He checks his phone.  Scoots his chair in.  Out.  In.  Runs his fingers through his hair.
"This is a birthday muffin," he says, pointing to the muffin neither have touched.
She looks at it, and then at him.  "I won't eat it."
"It's for you.  For your birthday.  A nice birthday muffin."
She laughs and he holds out a piece.
"I won't eat it from you," she says, folding her arms.
He excuses himself from the table.
"Read the paper, Mom," he says, pushing the news towards her. 
"Catch up on the world."

5.       When he returns, all is forgotten.
"We'll stay half an hour more," he says.  He pulls out an iPad,
"It's amazing what they make now, Mom.  Look at this." 
She looks, briefly, then points at her sweater.
"Is this color nice?" she asks.
"Sure, Mom." 
She blushes and her voice rises a notch.
"Oh you," she says.
"Don't try to make me beautiful." 

6.       He turns the iPad to her.
"This is your grandson.  In a couple months, he'll be a lawyer."
"A lawyer!" she gasps.  "He looks nice.  He has eyes."
"And a nose and a mouth.  He's your grandson," he says.
He softens and adds, "he's a good guy."
"I should say so," she says, bristling.
He takes a bite of the muffin. 
So does she. 

7.       "Remember when we had big birthday parties at your house?" he asks.
She smiles. 
He sits still for the first time since they arrived and pulls up another picture.
"Remember this?"
She looks at the picture, then looks closer.
"That's a photograph," she says, voice full of wonder.
She touches the iPad, gently, then looks at him, saying,
"It's amazing what they make now." 

8.       He takes another bite of muffin.
So does she.
"That's Dad.  That's you," he says, pointing.
"That's me?" she asks, laughing.
He smiles.  Leans back in his chair,
reveling in the momentary normal they've found.
"I was beautiful," she says, quietly,
"I think we all were." 

9.       They're quiet for a time.
"I just don't know anymore," she admits, about nothing in particular.
"It's okay," he says.  "I love that I get to surprise you
with the story of your life." 


Sunday, October 14, 2012

My rusty writing...

I have been thinking a lot lately about the thoughts we tell ourselves, and about the habits we create around those thoughts.  I have been thinking about how difficult it is to change those thoughts, and how it's even more difficult to change the habits we develop.  Even as a behavior therapist, behavior change certainly doesn't come easy.

I'm thinking in particular about the thoughts and habits I've developed surrounding writing.  For a while, I was writing several times per week, if not daily.  When I was writing so often, writing came easily.  The words just seemed to flow out of me, and I would go through my day "hearing" what I would write about in my head.  I lost some of the perfectionism I have surrounding writing as I wrote more, because it just didn't matter as much.  If what I wrote today sucked, I would be sure to write something better tomorrow.  Writing daily, or almost daily, became a habit, and a habit that I craved.  It was time when I could sit with myself and find me again, back at a time when I was someone I wanted to spend time with.  At a time when I was someone I wanted to find.

My writing started to become more and more infrequent, though, which for me, just isn't a good sign.  The more infrequently I wrote, the more pressure I put on myself to write, and to write something "good."  The pressure to write - and to write well - made it even more difficult to actually get words on the paper.  Writing infrequently, and stressing myself out about writing, became a new habit.  I craved the feeling of writing that I knew from before.  I hungered for the comfort the words would bring me, and the ease with which they used to wash over me and flow onto the paper.  When I wrote, though, there was no ease, and there was no comfort, so suddenly, the response effort was just too much.  Why would I want to sit with myself and attempt to find myself again?  I did not want to spend time with myself.  Squeezing those words onto the paper was not the joy-filled experience it once was.  It seemed better just to let the habit fade.

Even now, it's not that I want to write.  Quite honestly, I still kind of don't want to, but I have to.  There is a voice inside of me that just keeps pushing and pushing and pushing, insisting that I have to sit down and make myself do this.  I have to push through the "I don't want tos" and the "I have nothing to says" and the "I don't want to write about thats" and the ultimate anxiety that sets in as I make myself continue to write. 

So I'm trying to re-teach myself how to write.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I'm trying to re-teach myself how to find my writing self.  I'm trying to re-teach myself how to allow the thoughts and words to coalesce and form sentences.  I'm trying to be mindful of the emotions that come up and channel them into writing, rather than gathering them like rocks that are collected only on the off-chance that there MIGHT be fossils in them.  It's like going through habit-reversal training.  I have to identify when those old thoughts come back (You can't write.  It's not worth the time.  You're not worth the time.  No one wants to hear what you have to say.  You have nothing to say), and I need to intervene with a competing thought (I am worth it.  I have something to say). 

All of this is, of course, true and also part of the larger metaphor of the ways in which I'm attempting to live my day-to-day.  There was a time when life was easy.  And then there was a time when the response effort for life was just getting to be too much.  But that's changing.  I want to write to document that change, and I want to write to ease that change.  Writing has always been the way through which I come to understand my life, and this change is important.  It's worth understanding.  Behavior change isn't easy, but if I'm going to be making new habits, I want them to be ones that kindle life inside of me.  I want to ease those wedges out of the cracks holding open the broken places.  I want to take the energy that's been created as I aimed my life towards survival and channel it into health and creation.  I want to rediscover the places in my body where the words are hidden and coax them out.  It's safe now.  We can all come out and play.

This song has been going through my head all day:


It is probably not the song writer's intention, but I think this song resonates with me because I'm feeling like both the young child and the "old folks."  I need to treat the part of my self that is struggling to create these new habits, the part that is doing all this new learning and hard work "like an orchid/ so rare and hard to find."  And this old part of me that I am shedding like a snake skin--all the old habits and pain and choices that no longer work for me - they've "given me the future" and "taught me what I know" - so perhaps I should be "gentle, wise, and kind" to them as well.  It's easier said than done.

Writing, then, is my love song - for me and for the world.  When I don't write, it's because I can't find enough love for either one of us to fill that space.  It's time for me to start singing again.  My voice is a little rusty, and I apologize...but my heart has just been quiet too long.

How do you sing your love song for yourself?  How do you sing your love song for the world? 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Point of the Story

She screamed into the dark
waving her arms like a policeman directing invisible traffic in a bright pink pajama set.
I followed the detour of her signs across my driveway and into hers
rerouted the plans for my evening:
if past behavior predicts future, this could take a while.

Tomatoes, she said with her hands, gesturing around her kitchen
You take.  Eat.  My son.  J. I. M.  Jim.  He brings tomatoes.  Tomatoes.  Tomatoes.
I eat.  Eat.  Eat.  Sick of tomatoes.  No more.  Finished.
More, more, more.  You take.  Jim brings more.  You eat them. 
Good.  Very good.  You eat.  You like.  In salad.  Delicious.  Take more.

So many tomatoes, I say.  Thank you.  Look good.  Thank you.
I turn to leave, unsure how to finish the conversation as I attempt to hold my tomatoes. 
She grabs my hand, puts the tomatoes on the table. 

Come. She says.  Must meet husband.  In bed.  Sick.  No talking.  Very bad.  91 years old.
Woman comes to bathe him, dress him.  Nice man.  Will like you.  Meet my husband. 

We round the corner into a bedroom with a hospital bed and a twin bed beside. 
She shakes his foot and his eyes open, slowly. 
He looks at me.  At her.  At me.
She says something to him I don't understand.  He doesn't either.  She pats his hand.
He smiles, wiggles his fingertips against his chest.
See?  she says, beaming, proudly.  He tries.
They look at me, expectantly.

His blue eyes pierce my skin, and inadequacy creeps up my back and across my face. 
Nice to meet you.  I live next door. 
He stares, and I reach over the bedrail to touch his hand. 
He smiles, beautifully, soulfully,
and 91 years of words crash in my mind.

My husband.  Me.  Married.  65 years.  Married 65 years.  
She pats his hand.  

Very hard now, she says. 
We're still in love.

They both stare at me, smiling,
awaiting any communication,
breathing, together, unaware of the noise.
I say goodbye and leave them
to fill in the empty spaces I left,
knowing they're the only two who can.

In my dark and empty kitchen, I wash tomatoes
hoping to leave you signs such that, when I reach the end,
and allow resignation to live in my flesh as my only success;
when I invite Defeat into my bones so she can live as Triumph at last;
you will love me harder when I speak through finger twitches, involuntary,
and love us together as we breathe our conversations.

Leave my long-sought perfection under my skin,
soaked in by no longer thirsting pores.
Siphon out my flaws with kisses
trace tender fingers over hidden scars
suck the ugly from me
and bury it deep between your lungs and vocal chords
so you can forever sing my essence
every time you breathe.

The irony of this poem
written for a Deaf man who can no longer communicate
is the point of the story.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Scaffolding the Essence

It's one of those things you never think about initially.  You just kind of have it, and it's there, and it informs your experience and your thoughts and the way you interact with your world.

When you lose it - or, speaking only for me, when I lost it - I didn't know it was gone.  The world just seemed to change, slowly, imperceptibly to me, and either I went crazy or the rest of the world did.  Facts that I had known no longer seemed true.  My thoughts changed.  My experience of being in the world was no longer the same.  It's not that I realized this, of course, I just knew things were different.  Wrong somehow.  Over time, "something's wrong" becomes "I'm wrong" which leads to "things are just really f*cked up right now." 

I guess losing Perspective can do that to you.

The really cool thing about Perspective, though, I got to experience last week.  She comes back, the sneaky creature.  Just as suddenly as she left with my sense of sanity and well-being, she reappeared, unexpectedly, and overwhelmed me. 

People have told me -- many people, even -- that my writing is powerful.  Many people have told me, too, that I am strong.  Or brave.  Or courageous, or whatever other word you want to stick in there instead.  People have told me -- many people, even -- that they could see through my writing that I was strong.  That I was okay.  That I was brave.


I didn't believe it.  Like, at all.  Giving me compliments like might as well have been trying to nail Jello to a tree.  It just wasn't going to stick.  My writing isn't strong.  It isn't powerful, or brave, or courageous, and neither am I.  All I knew was that I had to keep writing.  When I wasn't writing, things were bad.  Really bad.  Peering over the Edge of Despair sort of bad.  As long as I was writing, I knew I was staying afloat.

I believed that my writing wasn't because I was strong, or brave.  Putting those words together wasn't courageous--it was the only thing I knew how to do.  I was writing to stay alive.  I was writing to stay connected to...something.  The world?  God?  Myself?  Other people?  I don't know, even now.  I write to connect.  Putting my fingers to the keyboard is the only way I know to make myself keep breathing sometimes, even if no one sees it.  Even if the words don't make sense and are nothing more than the anxiety-riddled ramblings that fill my mind. 

Last week, though, I had a moment in which Perspective, the elusive fox, returned.  These past few weeks, more often than not, I have felt strong in ways I have not felt strong in...probably...well...maybe ever.  I have felt empowered, and confident, and I feel like I can see the person I was, as well as the person I want to be.  I believed I had, suddenly, for whatever reason, found where Strength was hiding and allowed her in.  I allowed myself to invite Courage and Bravery in for a little bit, too, and the four of us sat and had tea, and damn, it was an amazing feeling.

For some reason, when I was enjoying my newfound strong and courageous feelings, I pulled the bulging binder of poetry I have written from the shelf and started to flip through the poems I have written over the past two years.  As I read my words, I was amazed, and confused, and startled, and scared, and surprised.  It turns out, Courage and Strength and Bravery and Confidence had never been missing.  They had been there--in me, even--all along, and I had written documentation to prove it.  It was truly like reading my own work for the first time.  Some of the poems I have even committed to memory, but as I read them again, in black and white, looking at the dates they were written, I felt like I was seeing them with new eyes.  Those words were not just vessels carrying pain, or anger, or shame.  They are words doing exactly what it is that I believe all words do when we write our truth: they speak back to the pain, and anger, and shame, and they reveal an underlying strength that comes from writing truth.

I've written this before.  I know this to be true of your writing, and his writing, and her writing.  I did not know--not really--that it was also true of mine.  Realizing that I did not actually ever lose that strength, or confidence, or bravery, or courage, is overwhelming.  It may not seem like much, but it moves me to tears--makes the screen blurry, even, as I attempt to articulate this.  It's like feeling as though you lost something essential to who you are, and keep struggling to find it for two years, only to realize it is still you--you are still you--it is still in you, you just haven't been able to see it.  It's sad, in a way.  Almost like I had those two years stolen from me, and I have only anecdotes written by a person I don't recognize to fill me in on what I missed.  It's realizing that everything I thought was missing has been there after all.  Like the emperor really was clothed in gorgeous jewels and furs like everyone said--and I was the only fool who couldn't see it and thought he was naked.  

It's not that everything is just the same -- it isn't.  Far from it.  I am changed, undeniably, but the essence of me is there, and it took strength, and confidence, and bravery, and courage to maintain that.  Even when I thought I didn't have it, I did.  Even when I was so sure that I wasn't strong, I was, and I can see that in my words.  It's a crazy sort of thing.  I can't explain it.  I'm trying, but there's too much emotion here, and it's too abstract.

Audre Lorde says it so much better than I can.  She wrote: "For women... poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then in to more tangible action. ...Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. ... And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives."

Even when I do not realize it, perhaps, poetry (writing) is the scaffolding around the essence of who I am when the rest of me--the rest of the world as I know it -- seems to be crumbling.  Even when words are written in desperation, the act of writing is strength and courage embodied.  It is proof of the survival of a spirit.  It is a reminder that I am - and have been - strong, and confident, and brave, and courageous.  It is through writing that I maintained my Self.  It seems fitting that it would be through writing that I found her again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

An Unlikely Friendship

                About a week ago, I learned that my friend from my old church had started receiving hospice care.  I had known since I met him that his health was not good, and I saw some of the struggles he had over the 2 or 3 years I saw him regularly at church.  I heard tonight that he passed away, peacefully, today at home.  I know he was ready, and I know this is what he wanted, but as is so often the case, the people left here are hurting.  Or, at least, I know that I am.  My heart hurts, and there are tears falling--again.  I can't help it.  They just keep falling. 

                This friend of mine was significantly older than me - old enough to be my grandfather, actually - but he was just one of those people that I got that feeling about.  There are several of you (you, who read this blog, even) I have felt this way about, and it's difficult to describe.  It's a feeling of "I need to get to know you.  I don't know if I'm supposed to know you, or if you're supposed to know me, or if we're supposed to know each other, but this is supposed to happen."  I rarely tell people about this feeling, but at this point, I trust it.  It never, ever leads me astray.  Lucky for me, he got the same feeling, and we were able to share this with one another.  In fact, we shared quite a lot with one another--not only did he read my blog, but I also read his, and we shared letters--long, long letters -- with one another over a span of more than a year.  I just searched my inbox with his name, and I don't even know how many letters there are.  I can't read them right now.  I will.  And I'm saving them, for sure.  But I'll read them later.

                I do remember, though, an exchange in some of our emails in which he stated, "I think I would like to adopt you, okay?"  I was going through an incredibly difficult time, and was feeling not only alone, but entirely unlovable.  "I am 100% okay with being adopted by you," I responded.  "Consider yourself adopted," he wrote.  And I did.  I was.  I know for a fact that he treated everyone this way--his love seemed boundless--but he also made me feel important.  And loved.  And worthy.  I could be honest, too, in those letters.  He was a man with a story (which he was telling, here, and you should read), and we shared a deep belief in the importance and value of storying our lives.  I listened.  He listened.  We shouldn't have had anything in common, and we knew it.  And yet, I have an inbox full of letters.  Sometimes, you just love anyway. 

                He commented on my Facebook page with such regularity, I actually had a friend ask me, "who is this old dude who comments on everything you say?" 

                "He's a friend of mine," I said, laughing.  "He's fantastic."

                "He's not a creeper?"

                "Thanks for looking out for me," I said, "but no worries here.  Not a creeper at all."

                Hugs were the other thing we shared.  I gave him big, long hugs because...well just because.  Because he told me hugs were special, and not something to be taken lightly.  Because he loved them.  Because he needed them.  And deserved them.  Because I needed them.  Because, when I looked into his eyes, I saw things I have never seen in anyone else's that made it so I just wanted to hug him.  A big, long hug.  Because when I gave him a hug after church, he would write me a thank you e-mail.  Because I loved getting e-mails.

                After I passed my dissertation defense, I went to an event at church.  I was on the phone with my sister in the parking lot prior to walking in to the building, and he came over to me, so excited to give me a congratulatory hug that he completely missed the fact that I was on the phone and hugged me such that I very nearly dropped the phone.  It's an amazing thing to have someone that honestly and genuinely excited for you.  (I got an email after that asking me to apologize to my sister for interrupting the phone call.  I never apologized and told him so.  The hug was worth it).

To my friend: thank you.  Thank you for reminding me of what was good and beautiful in me at a time when I could not see it myself.  Thank you for letting me be there for you, as young and immature as I am, and for reminding me that I have something to offer.  Thank you for trusting me, and for "adopting" me, and for sharing your soul.  I consider myself to be so incredibly blessed.

My friend sent me this song (which I downloaded onto my ipod soon after) when I was going through a particularly difficult patch of time.  There were days this song was on repeat in my head all day.  In our emails, we talked a good deal about Buddhism, and mindfulness, and acceptance, and living in the moment.  (Warning: even if you did not know him, this song will likely make you cry.  At least, that's what it has always done to me).

Monday, June 11, 2012


Do you ever have moments or days when you feel like the universe might, actually, be stacking the smaller events of your day for a reason?  I don't believe that things happen for a reason, and I don't believe in fate or some sort of pre-determined destiny...but sometimes, the little things are just stacked in ways that make you go "hrmph."

So get this.  Story 1.  Yesterday, my sister and I tried to go to the lake-over-the-mountain to go swimming.  It's a small lake with a small beach, but it's a place to go and swim and the water isn't generally too gross.  It's about a 30 minute drive from my parents house, and by the time we got there, the park was closed because it was full.  We were bummed, naturally, and even a Slurpee from 7-11 didn't help.  (Slurpees are gross, actually.  Neither of us had ever had one, somebody was singing the praises of Slurpees to my sister the other day, the AC in my car doesn't work, and we were bummed out, so we were looking for an adventure...but for the record, Slurpees weren't quite what we were looking for).  At any rate, we took a walk downtown and went back home.  Oh well.
Today, my client shows up for session and both she and her mother are totally sunburned.  "It looks like you had a fun weekend outside," I said.
"Oh yes," said mom, "we spent all day yesterday at the park.  We went to the lake-over-the-mountain and spent all day at the little beach swimming."
Hrmph, thought I.  That would have been awkward.  Small beach.  Small lake.  Talkative client family of 6.  My sister and I.  It's probably a really good thing we got Slurpees instead.
Story 2.  I was running late getting out the door and getting to work this morning.  I actually woke up early, but then Summer the dog who lives down hill on the next road over was in my backyard for the 200th time, so I had to take Summer home and stick him back in his fence behind the house.  That set me back a bit, but I was still okay-ish time wise...until I got in the car and realized I was on E and absolutely HAD to stop for gas if I hoped to make it in to work at all.  The gas station near my house is tiny, and all the pumps were full, so I had to sit and wait for the huge ass pick-up truck with the confederate flag bumper sticker that was taking up 2 pump spots to pump, pay, buy coffee, mosey back to his truck, and drive away.  He took his time.   If Summer put me back a little, Mr. Confederate Flag put me back a lot.  Then the highway was backed up, and I was just plain late.  However, there was still hope!  I would only be late if I did the whole drive past work to park in the sketchy lot and take the bus back to my building thing I do every day.  If I parked in the parking lot I'm not supposed to park in, but can get away with if I do it very occasionally, I would get there 10 minutes before my meeting.  I hadn't parked in the forbidden lot in about 3 months, so I  decided to go for it, and was shooed in by my friend the security guard ("Here you go, hon," she says, handing me a parking pass.  "I ain't seen you in a while.  You go on in.  Have a good one").  Hooray for 10 minutes early!
About 20 minutes before I leave work, my colleague says, "why does it smell like smoke?"  I sniff and, indeed, it smells like something burning.  We walk out of the office--it smells like smoke out there, too.  We look out the front doors and it looks smoky.  2 minutes later, we have an email informing us that there was a 5-alarm fire with 130 firefighters working on it.  My friend, Erudite, and I leave the office.  Where we usually go out two separate doors, because I had parked at the close-but-forbidden lot, we left together.  We walked a ways, talking about the smoke and the fire while he looked up more information on his SmartPhone.  We parted ways as we neared the bus stop, but then he called me again.  "Hey...the bus is going to take forever because all the streets are closed.  Can you drive me home?"
"Totally," I said.
"It's not too out of your way?" he asked.
It is, but I didn't really care.  "Nah," I said.  "Let's go."  We walked up to my car and took a back way around all the traffic and smoke to his house.  Funny thing was, I was then able to completely avoid all traffic and closed roads because I got on the highway in a completely different location.
Hrmph.  Maybe Summer and Mr. Confederate Flag were in my life for a reason this morning? 
Do you pay attention to things like this?  Do these things happen to you?  What sort of attributions do you make for things like this?  Luck?  Fate?  The Universe unfolding as it should?  (And why, then, at other times, does every possible thing seem to go wrong, such that it would seem it all led to you needing to sit in traffic, or sit on a small beach with a talkative client?)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is it me?: Interpreting or misinterpreting weird gender stuff at work

So as you may or may not know, I am a predoctoral intern in psychology.  This means that me--and by default, all of my colleagues--are roughly 3 months away from graduating with our doctoral degrees in clinical psychology.  This means that in three short months, me--and by default, my colleagues--will be clinical psychologists.

Now, I'm a little embedded in the field, but my general impression is that when most people think of clinical psychologists, they first think "somebody who works with crazy people," and then think of people who listen to other people's problems, right?  Generally, people seem to assume that psychologists are good listeners, caring, people you help you work out your problems, etc.  Lots of people go to see psychologists, and they seem to assume that those professionals are going to listen to them, be nonjudgmental, and be accepting of their emotions. 

Given, I can only assume all of these things because I've been in the psychology world for so long, I don't really know anymore.  My family all just seems to assume that psychologists are crazy because Dr.Silberman, the psychologist who used to live across from my grandmother, retrieved his newspaper every morning, in the nude, for 30-some-odd years.  I am unsure of his listening abilities as the family folklore never made it past the naked newspaper retrieval.  Lots of other people--particularly tipsy men in bars and men who are hitting on me--seem to confuse psychologist with psychic.  In fact, the number one thing response I get (again, particularly from males) when I tell them "what I do," is "'re a psychologist?  So, like, what am I thinking right now?  Are you reading my mind?"  Regardless of how I respond, this typically leads to some version (ranging from the clif notes to the epic saga) of their life story.  Seems that the "good listener" trope extends to psychologist-psychics as well.

That said, I'll be honest: I did spend a good amount of time in my first year of grad school learning how to listen.  We've got all sorts of fancy psychology names for it, and there are 20-bagillion theories about it, but basically what you learn is how to listen and respond to people in a way that is empathic, and meaningful, and leads to deeper work and healing, or crisis management, or understanding, or whatever it is you might be needing to do at that moment.  All programs are different, but in their core, we all learn the same things.  In particular, in that first year, we learn how to work with people and how to listen.

Historically, of course, psychology was overwhelmingly male.  Today, the field of clinical psychology (i.e. I'm not talking about the world of research right now), is primarily female.  Even just in my program, I could look back at the wall of class composites from the beginning of the program and watch the progression from all white, all male cohorts, to the primarily female cohorts (with more ethnic and racial diversity) that we have today.  In my intern cohort, which consists of individuals from programs all over the US, there is an overwhelming number of females to very few males (28:2 or something like that). 

Funny thing is, in my clinic (working with kids with severe behaviors), I work primarily with male therapists.  In fact, among the 4 primary therapists right now, I am the only woman in the bunch.  I appreciate this on several levels: (1) these guys are not as catty as girls I have worked with in the past, nor as competitive, and I needed that sort of environment; (2) when all 5'4 me is working with a kid who is severely aggressive, 5'9, and 275lbs, I want a guy who is 6 feet tall to come in and help me manage him before my OTHER wrist gets broken.  Particularly when the kid has swiped the glasses off my face, the lens popped out, and I can't see a damn thing.  Is there some gender "stuff" going on for me there?  Probably.  But there are just some situations I am put in that I can't physically manage, and I need somebody who can.  I prefer to avoid getting decapitated at work whenever possible.

But, I digress.  There was a situation that arose a few weeks ago at work that has been on my mind.  It bugged me at the time, and I feel like there is some weird gender role/steretype-y/sexism-y sort of stuff going on in it, but I'm having a difficult time putting my finger on it.  I could just be thinking about it too much, and you can tell me if you think I'm way off base.  But this is how it went:

Every couple weeks, we have a kid come into clinic for a 3-week intensive treatment.  They come every day, 5 hours a day, and are often from out-of-town.  These are kids that their local professionals have given up on, and they come see us as a last resort, more often than not.  Given that we need to see all of our regular clients while seeing these clients for 3-weeks, we work in teams of 2 primary therapists and, even then, occasionally, one of the other therapists will need to fill in.

So my colleagues, "Joe" and "Tom," had the last intensive case that came through.  The client came to us from another state, mom was here with her by herself, and mom was under a lot of stress.  I worked with her one day for 2 hours when both Joe and Tom had other obligations.  She was nice, we got a lot done, her kid bit me a couple times, and both of our lives moved on.  We smiled and said hello in the hallway when we saw one another, and talked briefly in the bathroom while washing our hands, and that was about it.  In other words, we did not have a special and magic bond above and beyond what you would expect if you worked with someone for 2 hours.

Then one day, when Joe and Tom were working with kiddo and her mom, mom was having a bad day.  She was frustrated, and stressed, and exhausted, from what I heard from across the hall.  I supposed that Joe and Tom handled it like the psychologists they almost are.  I assumed that they used those skills we all learned in school, and that they would be comfortable handling such a situation.

After lunch, I was sitting in my office, and heard a lot of screaming that sounded like kiddo.  I went out to the lobby and, sure enough, kiddo was having some severe behaviors, Joe was restraining her, mom was trying to clean up their lunch, and everybody clearly needed help.  So I helped restrain kiddo, helped Joe get her up safely to a treatment room, helped clean up the spilled lunch, and then went back to make sure everybody was okay and I could go back to my desk.  This is all pretty typical--when you work with kids like this, this is just how life goes.  Even if it isn't your client, if the kid is having behaviors and assistance is needed, you help.  No problems there.

So I went to Joe, just to ask him if everything was okay.  "Could you do me a favor?" he asked. 

"Sure," I said, figuring he wanted me to make a phone call to a supervisor, or get a paper from his desk.

"Can you go talk to mom?  You know, she's been working with this all-male team all week, and she's really emotional today, and I really think she needs a woman to talk to."  Tom popped his head around the corner.

"Yeah, mom's really crying and just having a really bad day, and I really think it would be best if a woman talked to her.  She's been working with us guys, I really think it would be best if you could talk to her, woman-to-woman."

"About what?" I asked, unsure if, you know, maybe mom's ovaries had exploded since I saw her last, and the guys felt this delicate issue would be best handled by someone whose body also contains ovaries.

"Just tell her that kiddo is calming down, and reassure her that the treatment really is working, and just listen to her.  I think she really needs somebody to listen to her.  She's really emotional, and just really stressed," Tom said.

"Yeah," Joe said.  "Plus, you're really good with parents.  She needs you right now."

And, the truth is, working with parents--particularly parents in crisis--IS my thing.  Parent training, noncompliant parents, parents who hate their kids, parents who can't accept their kids disability, parents who hate my guts...I can do messy family dynamics and am comfortable with crying/pissed off/in distress parents. 

So I went, and I talked with mom.  Mom was definitely confused about why I was talking with her rather than those on her treatment team, but I dropped mom off to Tom and Joe a much calmer person who was ready to re-engage with her kid.

Afterwards, Tom and Joe thanked me profusely: "Mom just really needed a woman to talk to.  She really needed somebody who could listen to her and get what she was saying, and she was she just really needed a woman to be with her."

At first, I felt rather flattered.  Wow, I thought, for the first time, somebody is seeking me out for my particular expertise.  This feels good! 

As I continued to think about it, though, it felt less and less like I was being sought out for my expertise or skill, and more and more like I was being sought out because I was a female who could handle another female crying.  I don't call that "expertise."  Being able to sit with a mother who is crying because her kid just bit/kicked/hit/headbutted her for 30 minutes in the lobby is called being able to do your job.  Mom didn't need a woman to listen to her.  She needed a person to listen to her--a person who knew her child and saw her behaviors and witnessed the tantrum.  She needed to cry about it and say that she was exhausted and felt hopeless.  She needed a psychologist to use his or her listening skills and therapeutic skills and help her through the wave of despair until she landed on the other side.  I mean, I've had fathers I worked with who were pissed off and ready to go beat somebody up, but I didn't go get a male colleague because I thought he would better be able to understand male anger, or better able to relate to dad.  I talked through it, and I listened, and I used the skills I learned to get to the other side.

Are there times when a female therapist, or a male therapist, is warranted?  Absolutely, and I don't want to diminish that.  But, if Joe and Tom wanted my expertise working with parents, would they have been able to come to me and say, "hey, this mom is in crisis and you're good with parents in crisis.  Would you mind talking with mom?"  If so, cool.  If not--is that what they were saying, but couldn't?  Why did it became a gender thing?  Was this an issue where Joe and Tom thought: "we can't admit we're not good at crises like this, but AutoD is, so we'll ask her to come help and tell her it's because both her and mom have vaginas"?  If so, that's not so cool, and I wish I had called them out on it. 

Or, was this an issue of Tom and Joe being uncomfortable with mom being emotional, so they wanted to pass the work of "dealing" with a crying woman on to another woman, rather than working through it themselves?  If so, and they truly felt incompetent in helping mom, I will still help, because I won't make anyone do anything they feel incompetent in doing when a patient is at stake.  However, if that IS the case...I suggest they get comfortable with it quick, because in this line of work, emotions are an everybody thing, and not just for women to deal with anymore.  And, as the psychic that I am, I foresee a whole lot more emotional/crying individuals on their client load in the future.

What do you think?  Am I misinterpreting?  Over-thinking?  How would you have handled it?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The vulnerable side of AutoD

I TOLD you I wouldn't make it.  I tried.  Sort of.  I mean, seriously.  I gave it the best half-hearted effort I had.  That's actually saying more than you think it is.

Yup...this is about where I'm at.
I have to be honest, though: I haven't been honest here.  This probably isn't really a big surprise, seeing as I haven't actually been posting a whole heck of a lot and, really, the problem is that I haven't been completely honest with myself.  Or even a little bit honest with myself.  It's probably no surprise to you that, when you can't own and recognize your truth, writing is difficult.  It's also probably no surprise to you that, when the truth is that you are struggling just to get out of bed in the morning, it's difficult to find things worth writing about.  It's not that things aren't happening.  My days are full of random crazy stories I would love to one day laugh about, or cry about, or share and tell you.  I would love to be able to story it all, from the big things to the small things, and write it or poem it or create it into something that connects us with my words.  But I can't.  I just can't.  It's not because of lack of desire or interest or attempts, either.  I have sat at the page and tried to make the words come, and they won't, mainly because I silence them before they hit the page.  After so many of those attempts, it's better not to even try and to instead push myself into other such lofty endeavors as sleeping.  Or spacing out.  Or trying to figure out my life, or making myself wash dishes, or convincing myself it would be a good idea to paint my nails. 

The important things--the things I want to (need to?) write about are not appropriate for me to write about here.  So I don't write about them at all because, seriously, if I'm not going to write for YOU, what makes you think I'm going to write for ME?

Part of me really wants to try and put a positive spin on all of this for you.  I want to say something like, "I know that growth is almost always painful, and so I know that once this growth spurt has passed, I will be writing and living and smiling again."  I want to say things like "It's all just going to be okay," because that's what I do, and that's what I've always done, and that's what's comfortable for me.  It's okay.  It's not bad.  I'm fine.  I can keep smiling.  Nobody worry because Superwoman here has it all under control.  Except for the fact that I don't, because I can't.  It's taking me a long time to realize that it's okay that I don't have it all perfect and controlled and wrapped in a smile.  I know it's okay--nobody could, really--but that's not how it feels, and even if nobody could have it all perfect and controlled and smiley, I still want to exhaust myself trying because I'm used to being the exception.  I've almost always been an exception, or convinced myself that I was.  But now...well right now, with this, I am decidedly not the exception and can't even pretend to be.  With this, I need to struggle just like everybody else.  And that's just not okay by me, even when I have no choice. 

The hardest thing, though - the thing that's the hardest to acknowledge and write about --the thing that most prevents me from writing--is difficult to put into words.  Words are how I understand things, and if I can't write it, I'm probably confused by it.  As close as I can come to naming it, though, the hardest thing is this: from the time I was a kid, I have always felt a connection with some sort of higher power.  Sometimes I called it God, sometimes it was more of a god-lower-case-g, sometimes it was Nature or a universal loving spirit, but it has always--always--been there.  I connect most strongly and easily to it when I am in nature: it's a peace, and a coming home in my soul that connects me to myself and my world and makes me feel whole and loved and supported.  When I write, I reach that place.  I feel connected to myself and to my world, and I am at peace in myself with my words and my heart.  When I make music, when I have a really good conversation, when I meditate, when I am quiet--these are the times I felt I knew God.  I needed these times.  No matter what was happening, these times connected me to myself and to something bigger than me that left me comforted and protected.  It reminded me that there is something more--something larger than myself that could support me in the rare moment that I could not support myself.  When I was really desperate, I would go outside at night and look up at the stars and talk to my grandmother--which always brings me to tears--and the stars and the dark and the night air and the tears and connection I felt to my grandmother would bring me home to that universal loving spirit--to the god that held me.

But that support--that comfort and "something larger" and protection--it feels like it's gone.  I sit to write, and I write and write and write and never get to the point of peace, never feel held or supported or whole or loved.  So why should I bother?  I try to meditate, or be in nature, or talk to my grandmother, and it all feels empty so I've given up trying.  The place inside me that would be filled feels frozen with a fear and anxiety I can't name and I don't know if god has abandoned me, or is angry at me, or disappointed in me, or if he/she was never even there to begin with.  The only thing I've learned is that I never fully appreciated how much my belief in my god did for me until it was gone.  And I have no idea what to do to get it back.  I want it--need it, even--but it all feels ridiculous at the same time.  How can you want something you don't even believe exists anymore?

I have no idea how to end this.  It's all unanswered questions and loose ends, and I still have this intense desire to tell you I'm fine, I'll figure it all out, you don't need to worry, I'm strong, it's just a momentary difficult stage I will work through in no time.  But if I told you that, I would be lying.  Or rather, I don't know if I would be lying or not because I don't have the answer to any of those questions and I don't feel confident enough to say with any assurance that I will figure it out. 

These are the things I know for sure: I don't do vulnerability well.  Life will continue moving forward.  The world will continue turning.  The sun will rise in the morning, like it or not, and I will have to get up to greet it.  I will get up to greet it.  And so I'll begin another day.

Monday, May 7, 2012

What will YOU do?

I am finding myself short on words tonight. 

If you've read this blog at all, or if you know me, you know I have a thing about people telling their stories and having their stories heard.  I came across this blog post tonight on BlogHer.  For me (and, I'm assuming for you, too), it's a difficult and painful story to read.  For me, though (and in my mind, for everyone), it's important to read it and witness that this shit is REAL and it's happening everywhere from kindergarten to graduate school to the work place.  It's important to read it and sit and think about what YOU are going to do to make things different.  Because you know someone who has dealt with this, or something similar.  Or maybe you dealt with it yourself.  What are you going to do about it--for you?  For Gaby?  For all of the other women, or men, or children like you and your friends and your children or your future children?

Poetry readings, followed by menopause and angel wings (aka, the story of my afternoon)

After the monumental failure of yesterday, I desperately needed something to help me get my butt back in gear.  I've been avoiding going to meaning to go to a poetry event in the city that happens once a month on Sundays.  They consist of an open mic, followed by one or two featured local poets reading their work.  I have had a long-term goal of wanting to go somewhere and read my work in front of people, purely because it scares the crap out of me.  No, seriously, the thought of sharing my writing with folks--particularly reading it out loud--is enough to send me into a panic attack.  There are lots of a couple fears I have that I am totally okay with.  Tarantulas, for example.  I see no need for me to go out and expose myself to a tarantula (although, I did see one at the Fairie Festival and nearly jumped out of my skin).

As a kid, I was always pretty shy, but up until age 12 or so, public speaking didn't really bother me.  I won the poetry/short story contest in my home town until they discontinued the contest, and I always had to read what I had written at the summer festival when I got the certificate or whatever it was I won (I seriously don't remember now...that's funny).  I also did the public speaking competition for 4-H for several years (and yes, I won that one, too, until I quit 4-H because I hated it and thought it was a waste of time).  I'm not entirely sure why I won that one.  Looking back, I'm not entirely sure that "Mother and Son" by Langston Hughes was all that meaningful coming out of a 10-year-olds mouth...although they may have been impressed that I could remember all of "Father William" by Lewis Carroll.  Who knows.

So anyway, for a long time, I was totally fine with public speaking and reading my writing.  I was in a couple plays, but it really wasn't my thing.  It was fun, but I'm certainly not a born actress.  I am not sure what changed, or when it changed, but by the time I got to college, I hated public speaking.  Maybe it was starting college at age 14 and trying (unsuccessfully) to sneak by unnoticed in my writing classes.  I have no idea.  All I know, is that by the time I was actually in real college at 17, I would get physically sick before giving presentations.  I had an extremely difficult time speaking in class.  Luckily (though I wouldn't have admitted this at the time), I went to a college and was in a department that was big on presentations.  I gave many of them and, by the time I graduated, I could handle giving academic presentations and contributing to class discussions on occasion.  I had to push myself, and I hated it with a passion, but I could do it.

I was writing relatively regularly at this point, but I only shared it with very few people.  Most of my writing from this time period has never been read by anyone else.  At this point, it's going to stay that way.  If you had asked me to read something I had written (something not academic) in front of others, I would have laughed in your face.  There was no way in hell that was ever going to happen.  In grad school, I lightened up a bit with all this, and had to do presentations all the freaking time, so I can talk academic-speak in front of people with no problem.  I share some of my writing here.  But reading my work aloud, in front of other actual living people is terrifying.  It feels like handing them a piece of my soul and just hoping they'll take care of it.  Part of me always expects nobody to "get it," or to tell me it's a shitty poem, or to laugh at it, or...I don't actually know why it's so nerve-wracking or what it is I expect people to do.  It's just really freaking scary.

It's even worse when other people are reading.  If it's just me, and there is nobody to compare me to, it's a tiny bit easier.  But when there are others, they are automatically about 500 times better than me in my mind, just because they're not me.  I don't even need to hear what they're going to read.  They could read total utter crap, and I'm still going to think they rocked it. 

So at any rate, I've mostly dealt with this insecurity by not dealing with it.  But today, I decided to tackle it.  So I did.  I went to that damn poetry reading--alone--and I signed up for the open mic, and I read a poem.  And the world did not cave in.  No tomatoes were thrown.  All my words came out in English and fully formed.  I didn't forget any words, and no dead poet rose from his grave to kill me for the abomination of reading a shitty poem out loud.

And, as if that wasn't fantastic enough, people actually really liked it!  And they told me so.  I went between two men, neither of which I heard because I was completely overwhelmed and self-absorbed immediately prior to and following my turn.  However, I came out of myself long enough to hear the man who followed me say, "I have to go after THAT!?!  Who wants to follow THAT!?!"  Everybody laughed and my face turned red.  I felt bad, even though I didn't really want to.  Maybe I should have read a different poem, I thought briefly.  How I wish I could think things like, "sucks to be you, buddy!" in those moments instead.  I'm pretty sure I'd be a completely different person, if that was the case, but damn...I think that would feel good. 

Afterwards, I was approached by several  people--including one of the featured poet people--who all wanted to know where I was published (nowhere), where else I read (nowhere), how long I have been performing (I haven't), and if I had a card (I don't).  Because the story of my life is that everybody from the clerk at the grocery store to the janitor at work to the man next to me on the metro wants to tell me their life story, a woman came and was very sweet to me about my poem, and then proceeded to tell me about her menopause symptoms, her bitter divorce, and her mother's death.  She said she could tell that I was quiet, like her (like who!?!), and that "sometimes quiet people have the most to say, when you stop to listen."  I believe that with all of my heart and always have.  In the remainder of this 5 minute conversation (we covered a lot of ground in a very short time), she told me that, while she was listening to my poem, she got a mental image of a picture she had seen once.  In this picture, there was a woman who looked like me who was looking into the mirror.  The actual woman had a big pair of angel wings--but she couldn't see those wings in the mirror.  "We never see who we truly are," she told me, before walking away.

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this.  Crazy lady?  Or is there a message I'm supposed to get take from it?