Thoughts….

I have been a therapist/social worker/counselor for well over a decade. As I post more poems on the blog, the topics I’ve sat with many early mornings/nights wrestling over will be put on display. Having started my career in writing and transitioned to therapist/social worker, I would argue the two are not as extreme as people might think them to be. In reality, I consider myself really neither but a combination of both. I am a storyteller and a listener. I love stories and to really appreciate and know a story, you have to be a listener. Often in a therapy session, I find myself listening like a writer. How is the story told? “Damn, that was a good quote.” “There’s something strangely profound and beautiful in what he/she just said.” As a therapist, you’re also always surveying rooms. What is happening in the room is often paramount to what is being said in the room. Writers will recognize this as their writing instructors telling them, “You must show and not tell.” I watch people intensely. I do feel their body language, movement, etc. tell me a lot. I once sat with a woman who just scratched and scratched her arms throughout the session. She was aware she was doing it and casually brought it up. I just remember looking at her red, scratched arms and playing back in my head everything she just told me. I looked at her and stated, “What have you been talking about this entire session?’ She looked down at her arms and I knew from the look on her face she had made the connection. I looked at her eyes watering up and stated simply, “I could be wrong, but it feels like you are itching to get out of your marriage.” I was not wrong. Her arms were not lying. As a therapist, I am known to have a pretty solid poker face. Clients and other therapists have commented on my ability to hold my face so people cannot read the emotion. Unfortunately, the training it takes to hold back that emotion, to appear stoic and strong, to not show you’re afraid when you’re scared shitless, to always have a logical response when you’re often really speechless, takes it toll. I was trained in a setting where clinically if I client cried, you never offered them a tissue unless they specifically asked for offering a tissue could be taken as a way of saying, ‘clean yourself up,’ and, in the world of therapy, we want people to feel ok being messy. Life is messy. Emotions are messy, and it’s certainly ok to feel that. As the therapist though, you are not to be messy. I have never cried in a therapy session or group. I have young men and women cry on my shoulder and tell me about how they were too young to have seen what they did in wars. I have sat with men and women just hours before they are headed to jail for the rest of their lives. I have listened to stories of rape, murder, suicide, grief, and I’ve never cried. I was trained to understand that ‘at the hardest and most challenging times in our lives, we don’t want someone who is going to break down and cry. We want someone who is empathetic but composed and confident. Sometimes being a therapist is simply being a great actor. You master the art of acting confident. In fact, I’ve done it so well I’ve had co-workers initially think I was arrogant. I’m not either. I am the opposite really. In fact, I’m learning I’ve been training my whole life for this role as a therapist. I was born with such intense emotions, I quickly had to learn to shut them down. I remember instances of watching other people get bullied (I got my fair share) and instantly almost feeling like I was inside them, feeling it all. I quickly learned if I was going to survive in this world, I had to learn to put that poker face on. I am not going to damn it. It’s a skill that saved me many times. Anyone who has taught in a classroom or dealt with someone itching for a fight knows the second fear is sensed, you’re done. I’ve never cried and I’ve never been punched. The second one I chalk up to my ability to hold my face and not show fear, even when I’ve been in situations where I’ve been scared as hell. I teach parents and their kids this trick week after week. I also teach parents each week they have to show their feelings, model them, so their kids know it’s ok to feel however it is they’re feeling. Today, I sat somewhere in the middle of these two seemingly contradictory lessons. I will be the first person to admit, personally I’m going through a very challenging time in my life for lots of reasons. There are two places I usually don’t take that with me, one is to work and the other is to my dedication to writing. I show up. If I have to act, I will, but I show up. I returned to working with adolescents reluctantly, after working with adults for years. I began my career working with them, vowed never to go back, and when I was halfway across the country and needed a job and what was offered was a job with adolescents, I took it. I am aware I can do it. I’m actually not that bad at it. It surprised me. To my enjoyment, I do really enjoy watching them take everything in. It is hard work. These are teens with hard lives and situations and there are probably more days where I walk out of work feeling like a complete and utter failure than I do a success. Today was a rare day where I walked out sort of bewildered. Today I straddled the line between the stoic “I’ve got it therapist,’ and the adult with emotions and feelings that I should show and not be ashamed of. It’s been a hard few weeks. The cases are challenging, the teens are full of energy… I’m depleted of energy. I walked into group this afternoon and was met with fifteen mini side-conversations. Normally, I just take charge and shut it down, which I did. However, the behavior in the room was extremely hyped up. After a week of correcting and listening to inappropriate language, jokes, teasing, etc., on top of having to stop every second to redirect a conversation or a behavior, I simply could not do it. I get up every day and plan assignments for these kids. My co-therapist and I make games, spend our own money on things to make groups more interactive, so they’re engaged. In the middle of the night, I am up thinking about my next move, what I can try, where I can go, to help move them forward. It was not my inability to manage the situation that made me stop the group. I’ve talked over many people in teaching or leading groups. It was what I was hearing. My therapist and I have been talking a lot about purpose and meaning. He’s shared how he learned what his was and I’ve thought about my own. The one thing that comes to mind consistently for me is ‘ensuring everyone have a voice.’ It’s why I became a therapist. As a writer, I emulate voices to give voice to things. In that room, I was shocked and saddened that these teens who are in treatment, all in some ways, because somebody or some group was refusing to hear them, were doing the same thing to one another. As we debriefed the situation, I started talking about my frustration with their inability to not respect the voices that were here to help them (mine along with all my co-therapists they have not been listening to) and as I talked a bit more, I began to state some of the things I heard them joke about or say to each other in that room. I began to utter, “I cannot imagine what hearing this/that word might do/mean to someone who has lived through that or experienced that…” In that sentence, it happened. I talked through it and thought no on noticed my voice cracking as if I was about to start crying. After they left, I sat with my co-therapist and we were joking around about how I, again, ‘made them cry.’ As this is just something I guess people do around me. Then she said, ‘I really thought for a minute you were going to cry.’ She had caught it. I owned up to it. “Yeah, I caught myself. It was almost like when you cry out of frustration,” I told her. “I actually think it changed things,’ she said. She noted that from her perspective they were angry, disengaged, etc., and then they saw that and the dynamic of the conversation changed.’ It was true after my voice cracked a bit, they then opened up and shared with each other words or jokes they had heard that were triggering them, but they were too ‘anxious,’ to assert themselves. It was a moment where I feel like the line between ‘the therapist,’ and ‘me the person,’ crossed. I tripped directly on what I stated in therapy last week was my purpose, ‘ensuring nobody ever feels like they don’t have a voice.’ The fact that this tripped me and made me vulnerable to a degree, I’ve never been before, gives me a lot to think about. The response to that momentary lapse, where I let my vulnerability be known also gives me pause. It certainly has me thinking a lot about the power of one’s voice, how it’s heard, how quickly we lose it and find it again, how we can be totally stripped of it and still inside all of us is the ability to still strip another person of their voice, and it certainly brings me back to the question of what is more powerful, offering someone the box of Kleenex and saying, ‘hey, I get it,’ or not and saying, ‘you’re allowed to feel these messy feelings, take your time; you don’t have to clean yourself up?’ I think it’s a story without an ending that satisfies. It’s definitely a story that leaves a lot more questions than it does answers. I know there are people out there that love stories that give you everything and wrap it all up nice and tight. I also know there are people that like a story that leaves a lot more unanswered questions than it does answered. I’m more of the latter in terms of movies/books/poems/art, but in life there are days when I am the former. I just want answers that are wrapped up nice with clear beginnings and endings. As a writer and a therapist, I’m clearly up for the discussion.

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