Diagnosis: Wounded Spirit

DSC04545

“I can tell you she’s a borderline–watch out for drama, Cynthia. Be careful, just calmly back off when she gets hysterical.” Trina peruses the inside of the staff refrigerator and pushes aside my lunch and her leftovers from last week.

“No, more narcissistic, I suspect.” Henry pauses with an out-sized bear mug in his hand, staring at the wall. “At the least, sadly.”

Mary strides in, hair disheveled, face a bit pale. “And I have yet another Asperger’s with severe social anxiety waiting in my office. Two the last week. I need a drink…just kidding, I need cheddar and crackers and pass me that apple juice.”

“Anyone want the leftover salad? Vegetables are critical to the positive progression of my jam-packed day. Could we get more emergencies, you think?” Trina doesn’t wait for a response and pours on balsamic dressing.

Henry emits a snarky bark of a laugh and mutters to himself, “For me, another sociopathic sex–and meth, of course–addict, so away we go.”

I’m exiting to my own office with my cracked blue and white mug of peppermint tea, wondering when this day will end. When, in fact, I will no longer be working here. It’s not that I don’t give some credence to my co-workers’ professional diagnoses. It’s not that I do not care about my clients. I’ve been doing this work for years and though I am not a psychologist and provide basic mental health counseling within a context of intensive addictions treatment–even though I cannot argue effectively against their specific education and insights, I am long past weary of the diagnostic web.

So finally, I retired three years ago, and this is partly why. I saw too often that the people I was trying to help had become caught up in defeatist mode, the standard cures often complicating their lives. And I also have always wondered why the health of the spirit is not addressed as part of treatment. It seems a no-brainer to me, whether it is addressed outright or, at the very least, considered an influence upon well being.

Once cast into the sticky weaving together of mental health services, clients can have a very hard time extricating themselves from it. Anyone would, likely, if you consider how die-hard labeling of people casts them in a certain mold, right or wrong, with its attendant interventions, secondary diagnoses and uncertain prognoses. Once on record–the DSM-V Diagnostic and Statistical Manual tagging you as having a certain disorder, say–it lasts a very long while if not always. And people carry this with them secretly or fearfully (due to worry of stigma) or with a certain pride: this underlies who I am, this is what happened, this is what can be fixed now. It’s an identity, an explanation, a cause for thinking and behaving certain ways. But people too frequently become inured to an insidious helplessness that accompanies such labels. It’s powerful stuff–it keeps one stuck within a point of view that shapes an entire vision of his or her life. It also can become an excuse or a burden: “I can’t help it; it’s haywire neurology; it was imprinted on me by environmental factors; it’s genetic; it’s just how I learned to cope. And I sure can’t change now.” Worst of all, it becomes a convenient identity card: “I am anxious and OCD” or “I am traumatized, have ongoing PTSD” or “I am on the autism spectrum so I’m of course really different.”

I heard hundreds of histories of uniqueness for decades. It was the common threads that interested me, for each of these persons shared underlying similarities.

And all those years I sat across from people sent to me for their alcoholism or opiate dependence or methamphetamine addiction and so on. But what I really saw were persons who had had profound harm visited upon their spirits. Not their egos, not their minds, not their bodies–though all those were also impacted. Their very spirits.

I wanted to set up my own shop with a sign hanging outside my window: “Spiritual Self-Healing/ Support Services Available/No Fee Charged.”

I realize I’m going out on a limb here. I’m not going to write a research-based treatise decrying current mental health practices. But I am suggesting rather strongly that people who need or want help sit down for intake and within a couple of hours are given a diagnosis, They then can walk out and more fully live out that diagnosis. They are anxious. They are delusional. They are reactive. Rather get better or even recover, they name the symptoms and perhaps it does bring some comfort in the naming. But if one is vulnerable, any sort of intelligent-seeming explanation looks like a fluorescent life jacket. And perhaps it is a real beginning, the way to extend a helping hand.

But then what happens? After the medications are adjusted and readjusted and deleted and started again, after the therapy sessions are extended a year or two or more, when groups multiply and become mandatory…well, what of the person who walked in that door desperately looking for better control of her own life? For freedom from confusion, a burden, the dependence on a substance to try to govern his mood or behaviors, his seeming destiny? At home again, sitting in their rooms, what do they see in the mirror then? They see trouble and sorrow, a loneliness that permeates all else as they are deemed sick people now, not struggling people trying to become stronger and wiser.

Only a small percentage of the emotionally challenged are chronically unable to function daily or to learn how to carry out a better balanced life. And the majority of substance abusers are not doomed to a fatal addiction. But they do need an emotional and spiritual overhaul, a goodly change of direction, and lots of support along the way. Not a label that tells them they are one thing and that is how it is and it will never be different. What has happened to a guided transformative process in the diagnosis- and pill-driven therapeutic process? People who are looking for happiness or peace want to participate in their rediscovery of both. To gradually take responsibility for the search and finding. They need a mirror to show them what’s still good and hopeful inside so they can begin, then sustain the work. I could (and can) do that.

I understand why mental health providers–myself included at times–like to identify, categorize, organize their caseloads into neat diagnostic slots. This one needs that, that one needs this, and these few cannot be in the same room together for more than fifteen minutes. It makes matters more manageable for providers and can seem helpful to the clients. Such sorting and tagging aids treatment planning and points us all toward a direction. It takes on the semblance of cogent action. It targets an outcome. We humans do like explanations, and if they sound and look like science, so much the better–whether in truth they are effective or not.

But what is the science of personal suffering, the significant bio-neurology of it notwithstanding? We know it erodes health, from the arterial inflammation to  dodgy digestion to restless sleep. We know it creates cognition deficits and emotional lability. We further know it can lead to breakdown, bit by bit, of one’s common functionality. Diagnostic criteria can aid in this information tabulating, yes. Yet the spirit of the person–what of that? How can that science go deep enough to find and heal the devastated soul of a human being–that is what I asked every day. That is what has me all these years in and out of the field.

I have not forgotten a great many of my clients’ therapy sessions and groups. They stay with me, perhaps, because long before I decided to retire I had begun to see the majority of people had a very hard time recovering–from grief and loss, from abuses of all sorts, from failures to love and be loved. Seeing diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder or general anxiety, acute depression with psychotic features or schizophrenia did not tell me nearly the whole story, however. Barely any of it.

What spoke to me was how they sat, how they did not speak of what mattered most, of how they sought or avoided my eyes as the pain rushed in the chinks in the armor we had discovered or made together. Their anger toward some omnipresent but blurry God for feeling forgotten and left behind. Their bitterness toward the ones they had once loved and now blamed. The pain that they had swallowed year after year because no one wanted to know of it. They were truly sick at heart. Broken of spirit. Or had had so much overload, diminished by months or perhaps years of substance abuse, that they could note very little as an authentic feeling. The identity they had been given was addict or alcoholic or crazy person.

How does a counselor propose hope as a tool to those who do not embrace it’s value? How is the path forged that helps them find their way back to some semblance of wholeness? We didn’t so much talk about their symptoms. We didn’t study weekly assignments. They didn’t have to enjoy being there or even like me. They just had to show up and I needed to be utterly present with them. To listen not only to the words but the undercurrents, the shadow of feeling, the ghost of the past that kept showing itself despite complex camouflage. Slowly, the masks designed to keep the world at bay would begin to fall away. Even the criminally active. Even those who heard odd voices. Even street-savvy heroin lovers. What they choose to do when that reveal was up to them. It mattered far less that I had to send a family services report or call their psychiatrist or probation officer. What I looked for was the barest resurfacing of who they were and could be. What they needed to stay alive without such regrets.

First and last I offered compassion. That is all. Because people who are in pain need the balm of kindness and those who rail against the world’s inequities and cruelties need steady, non-judgmental caring. Just as we all do. Love. It comes down to that. When someone is ready to accept an outflow of love, then spiritual and emotional healing can initiate and a lifelong, rich adventure unfolds–with less harm and more good being done by the very one who came in for help. Hurting persons, hungry for relief and finding love supplies that, are far more apt to pass it along. We –counselor and client–can work with each other in familiar ways even if it seems foreign at first to the client. Common denominators include being human, and we all suffer and we all are also spirit. Or so I, and so many others, do believe.

Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, inventor and physicist alive in the 1600s, wrote that humans are restless, want to fill our craving with things that are of no real help, when the “infinite abyss can be filled with only an infinite and immutable object, in other words by God himself.” (from Pensees VII) We can be cognizant of the God-shaped void, yet dismiss or forget it’s importance when all is well. When it is not, people once more to reconsider. And an even partly honest reckoning is hard.

“It must take such emotional and mental energy, I admire that you can do this. I surely could not,” I heard over and over.

Or: “Well over twenty years in this field? How do you do that? I burned out after five (or ten or fifteen)  helping people.”

Yes, to be of hopefully good use to other humans can be taxing. I think the power source makes the difference. It’s not veggies or tea or rest and exercise that fuel me. There was a primary source of my commitment and stamina but not my stubborn will or that I’ve always felt called to be of some help to others. It was God’s love of me. Every time before I met with another client (or groups) I prayed for more guidance and mercy, the strength to be a witness; also for good humor and patience; for my own petty ego to step aside and let God use me. Each hour of every day was nowhere close to any sort of perfection. I wasn’t looking for a mark of success. But I knew from my conviction as well as experience that with Divine Love to empower me, I would do what was needed or discern what other options would be good.

How much separates us from one another, the ones who become diagnosed and treated and the ones who pride themselves on doing just fine, thank you, true or not? A very thin line. No one knows what might happen that can tilt the balance, upend gravity so that your life starts seesawing and you cannot keep all in orderly balance. And I can assure you, it won’t strictly be a diagnosis or pills that will delineate your path and empower your life. That will be your seeker’s soul and whoever can hear its cry. It will be seizing the opportunity to avail yourself of compassion given, then learning how to plant the tiniest seeds of hope and faith in its fertile sustenance. I assure you, it happens. Life changes us but we, too, can effect great change.

Seeing Those Unseen

Youths-on-the-street-001

The walk through heavy double doors to the office in the rundown building is powered by my will to land a job. Voices careen through shadowy and inaccessible rooms, doors bang shut–or is that something being thrown against a wall? I sit in front of a supervisor of a residential alcohol and drug treatment center. In this place long-term services are provided to adolescents. I am wondering why I ever agreed to an interview. As moments tick by, I am riveted by the description of the job and answer questions with genuine enthusiasm even as there are people scuffling and two persons trading expletives. Yet I want to be here. I can feel their hunger, the electric life.

That was a vivid scene in my mind upon awakening recently. The halls and voices of my past still haunt me. They changed my life.

Lately I have been filled with unease and distracted by a related issue, the sort that seeps into each day and night as if bubbling up from a subterranean source. There are only a few weeks before I must re-certify my CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor) which enables me to stay in this field. I’m also qualified to provide some mental health counseling.

I quit my last position because retirement was becoming more attractive. I experienced difficult ethics dilemmas regarding issues that can plague such organizations, especially non-profits, and felt they were not being well-addressed. And returning home at eight-thirty or nine p.m. after eleven hour days was tougher. But I also quit because I had spent too many years jotting down storylines in between clients, starting poems on sticky notes, then hiding them away. I was overdue to write full-time.

A daughter recently asked me: “Are you happy with your life as it is?” It seemed easy to answer: yes, I am glad to live this life! But I do miss working with the invisible ones at the fringes of society, challenged, changed or disabled by mental health and addictions problems.

Most people in this field burn out between three and five years. There are many who continue, but not too many for twenty years or more. For some reason, my committment and caring deepened and a restless compassion still fills me. I am not special; those who help others are everwhere, often unknown. So I am just one of those unwilling to give up on what (or whom) I love most. I’m not sure it is even a choice.

So let me take you way back to 1994, back to that interview scene I awakened with, for it was very real…

 ******************

It has been months since I suffered the consequences of downsizing. I am desperate. Despite sending out countless resumes and ending a couple of interviews on a high note, my efforts have come to naught. I did not coplete my Bachelor degree but before I left Detroit I’d been a home care department manager for a human services program providing for three counties. My 350 primarily homebound clients included younger people who had suffered a variety traumatic brain injuries, as well as those with other disabilities. I hired and trained 150 employees. Yet here in Oregon I am scrambling. Everyone seems more qualified than am I, at the top of the heap.

So when money runs out and I study the requirements for a “Residential Care Facilitator”, it seems folly to respond. I have never worked with disturbed or addicted youth; I am not a therapist. They want someone who is sober, can monitor and assist at-risk youth and develop better programing. I am living a recovery lifestyle, have raised five children and manage to convey indirectly that I am not easily intimidated. I have experience developing programs and providing practical support to high risk populations.

Just not teenagers who have been homeless or incarcerated. Traumatized. Mandated to residential alcohol and drug treatment. They are bound to be enraged and depressed. What am I to them? I am part of the barrier in their thinking.

The interview goes well. The supervisor likes my varied experience and passion to be of service to others. I get the idea he is interested in hiring someone more mature, older than twenty-something. At forty-two, my competence has been tested and deemed solid. But this time I am a neophyte. He explains the majority of youth here for three to six months are gang-affiliated or gang-affected, prone to violence against themselves and others. Girls and boys, ages twelve to eighteen, are in separate dorms but share activities. All have become addicted to multiple drugs including alcohol. They bear scars of physical and emotional abuse. They have mental health diagnoses, serious abandonment issues. A challenging group to watch over much less teach, inspire, and point in a healthier direction.

They also need someone to coordinate field trips, create outside educational activities, plan enjoyable physical recreation. The clients must be driven to parks and A.A. meetings. They require monitoring at all times. I might assist the teacher in the alternative school teacher at times. All for little pay.

“So, what do you think?” he asks, eyes lit up.

What I think is that my smile is straining my facial muscles. My heart rate increases every time a kid screams at someone or I glimpse a sullen face outside our door. I regret not learning excellent office skills so I can work at a dentist office; it might be so much easier. I’d taken a donut shop counter job. But completing college would have been the best idea. Instead, I married my first husband and he finished his Masters while I had (well-loved) babies. I have to turn my life around, escape another failed relationship and avoid looming poverty. A more fulfilled life is a goal; while joy isn’t critical, I at times dream about it.

“If that’s an informal offer, my answer is ‘yes’,” I say, shaking his hand.

My extended family wonders if I am scared to work with these troubled kids. (Yes! But no one else will know that.) How will I pull it off? (By paying attention. Following instructions. Getting to know the clients.) My partner, not who I hoped, thinks any paycheck in my name would be good. He is right, always. He can make this painfully clear. Little does he know of my hidden agenda: moving out with my teen-aged son and daughter when I save money.

I shrug. “It’s not like I’ll be working in a reform school or jail. I’ve had difficult clients before.”

“Sure. Elderly and disabled,” my youngest child reminds me.

The first day I enter the girls’ unit there are a number of sneers and questions. Heads pop out of rooms and eyes try to stare me down. I know how to not blink and act brave. I try memorizing the unit’s rules and my duties but at the end of the day I feel as though I have left a “hot spot” where a fragile truce has been called. I make it out intact due to my helpful co-workers, all under thirty yet oddly jaded. When I get home I don’t want to talk. I want to sleep a dreamless sleep and wake up a professional.

For a long week I watch and am watched. Not primarily by my boss, but the clients. They assess me better than I do them, as their instincts are well-honed and street smarts prepare them for anything. I know I look like someone just out of a Junior League meeting with coordinated slacks and blouse, hair and lipstick just so. It’s the casual version of my old work attire. But it isn’t just that other employees wear jeans and t-shirts to blend in, like camouflage in the wilderness. These kids are savvy and know I am green, not just new. They’re looking for my soft spot, the weakness that will allow them to get extra attention or more dessert, a later “lights out” or a good word put in with their therapists. Someone they can make a partner in crime.

I figure all this out when my supervisor informs me on the fifth day that the reason A., a thirteen year old client, is so friendly and flattering is that she needs good reports in order to not be “discharged incomplete” which means locked down somewhere else. She has hit a dorm mate once and threatened staff. Duly noted.

I return home at almost midnight, sit on the back stoop and cry without sound. How can I do the work if caught between a passionate impulse to be of service to those in need and noxious fear of the unknown and possible assault? I resolve to give it two months. Thoughts of failure makes me feel I am teetering on a scary precipice. I pull myself back and grit my teeth. I must succeed.

What the clients do not know is that I am not all I seem at first glance, just as they are not. I have gotten through treacherous times. Have my own survival skills. A will that holds fast and a deep-rooted desire to be useful in the world. I am driven and have have discipline, both of which were instilled during a somewhat privileged life that was soon scored with pain and loss.

It takes a couple of weeks, but I begin to see that beneath scars, bravado and bad words are the longing to belong, a dim hope of kindness, and vulnerability they fight to protect. They have been abandoned, beaten, sexually abused, thrown out on the street, supplied drugs by their families, locked in closets and reform schools. Many have been in multiple foster homes and found not one bearable. Many of the teens have been diagnosed with mental health disorders and are medicated, with uneven results.

I find my place as the kids make room for me. I work every shift and overtime, including graveyard, for the money but also the experience. I am good at staying calm so group counselors include me to encourage safe, effective dynamics. The alternative school teacher needs help so I start a writing group. They learn there is more to language than they imagined and discover words for nebulous, confounding feelings. I watch them change. A good way to connect with them is to provide experiences that are different than most are used to. I coordinate a recreation program that includes visits to the ballet and the art museum as well as barbeques and badminton in parks. Another is to pay attention when they need someone to bear witness to dark secrets and fragile dreams, most of which have been too long unspoken.

Or is just holding steady, as when one beleaguered young woman, stands in silence as she fires an imaginary .22 at every car in the parking lot. And then at me. I freeze. Then hold out my hands to her. She drops her phantom weapon, grabs on. Later, much later, we laugh. I immortalize her in a poem and pray she stays alive. As I do every one.

Without fail the person who learns the most is me. Resilience comes from the human need to keep living. Strength for the weakened arises from being comforted amid suffering and learning how to reach back. Hope sparks when even one small event clarifies possibilities for a better life. Sheer survival can transform into flourishing. It is astounding to behold. The result is freedom to create a better life. In the end, love does what it can.

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

Was it really so hard to take that job when I didn’t think I could do it or even wanted it? Only in the beginning. I worked at that facility for almost five years. In between working hours I returned to college, became a certified alcohol and drug counselor, gained education in mental health counseling, and have served diverse populations. I discovered one of my callings–God offered me a chance I hadn’t expected–and it carried me along the next twenty years.

Can I leave it behind for good? I’m still uncertain. There are so many needs, some of which are mine. But I can share their stories, perhaps hold up lost ones and warriors with these words:

You are seen. Known. Remembered and honored by this woman.

Photograph by Joseph Szabo
Photograph by Joseph Szabo

 

 

Acquisitions

DSCF3895Sela rushed into the office kitchen, excited to have a few minutes to eat a piece of chocolate cake. Heidi had saved her a portion of birthday dessert and hidden it behind drinks in the frig so no one would filch it. Sela parted bottles but it was gone. She searched the second shelf but found it empty save for an orange and an aluminum-wrapped sandwich. Disappointment squelched anticipation.

She turned to appraise Patrick who lounged at the small table. He raised an eyebrow and his black and silver mug in greeting.

“There’s superb coffee,” he said in a jovial voice. “I made it after lunch.”

“Did it go well with the cake?”

He cocked his head. “Why do you always think I swipe the treats when there are several others who enjoy them? Such as yourself.”

“Heidi made a point to save a slice for me. She even hid it. It’s gone. You ate it. You’re a laser that locates the best sweets and savories.”

Patrick rubbed a spot off a silver square–the better to see himself, she thought– took a swig, then stood. “Yes, it is a talent worthy of respect. But I doubt I can beat your skillful nose. Sorry you lost out.” Then he pivoted, smiled at her and left.

The quick smile lingered like fragrance, changing the space. He, in fact, never wore cologne but Sela had a nose for fragrances and could identify most. She found he smelled oddly of mint with a hint of basil when they sat next to each other at meetings or consults. Perhaps a natural shampoo. It was unusual; it startled. That smile, though–it was pleasant as a pipe tobacco’s smoke yet obscured the face behind it.

Patrick Windsor generally took more than he gave from what Sela could figure. One would think he’d be more generous and transparent. He was a mental health therapist as was she. A good one. Everyone said so, especially his clients. Sela had arrived only in the summer. She was not yet persuaded, and found his charm a veneer under which rumbled more; perhaps deep flaws. Not that she wanted to know. He was too good-looking, for one thing. She’d never held physical beauty in high regard. Patrick’s was so off-hand she was sure he cultivated the image of ruffled suaveness with utmost precision. An aristocrat lurked beneath the working man.
Sela had ignored his banter at first. Being professional was her priority. Heidi had given her the head’s up: Patrick was a man of many excesses, the usual plus more since he came from old money. Everyone felt that that made it worse for the guy, so were tolerant of his reputation. Well, so could she be, and determined to like him more.

He had once informed Sela once that he had “acquisitive tendencies”. They alternately amused and burdened him. She was surprised by his openness but he laughed, thereby dismissing the topic. They’d been sitting outside on a break. Her car troubles had been the initial topic.

bank-mit-pflanzen-44421287528590gV7W“Well, my habit of acquiring things has left me with too many, like cars, two of which I drive to work. One every other week as you may have noticed. Another one is in my father’s garage, useless except for my sister’s borrowing it for coastal drives. It’s an sweet old MG convertible.” He tossed the weed he’d knotted while talking. “Tough about your car, though.”

“But the MG is the one to drive. If I were you.”

He gave her a look that indicated he wasn’t so sure but impressed she had an opinion. Sela liked cars, but the mention of his “extras” gathering dust felt egregious. She’d gone back inside. He’d remained on the bench, sun worshipping. It was soon often like that, the two of them gabbing, then she became uncomfortable. There was a small divide despite his efforts.

Sela sighed now and rubbed the knots in her neck. How she would have enjoyed that cake, and it was time to work.

The next day Patrick knocked and cracked open her office door. “I have a great client for you. She’s a plane crash survivor, is alcoholic, a cocaine addict and doesn’t want to stay in treatment but her family insists. Much better match for you.”

“Have her make an appointment. I have a couple slots left this week.”

“No, I meant for her to see you now if you have a few.” He pressed his hands together, pleading for help, and pulled a face.

Sela checked her clock. She had a cancellation earlier and now had forty-five minutes before her group.

“Patrick, I hate it when you do this. And of course I’m a sucker.”

“I know but it’s for the best. Ethics issue. Name is Marty.”

As Marty slouched in the chair she wound her fingers in honeyed waves and peered from behind them with forlorn eyes. A gash above her right eyebrow was stitched up. A garish green and yellow bruise covered her cheek and eye and her left arm was in a cast.

“I need a new boyfriend. It was his error piloting it. He’s not yet divorced. Mother disapproves–too close to her age. But he’s the only one who cares, he needs me.” She glanced at a diamond and ruby ring on her right hand, then thrust it into her leather jacket pocket. “I am not going to stop drinking. Cocaine, alright. I used to be party girl. Now forty looms. But alcohol is my water.”

“And he handles his alcohol and cocaine, also?”

Her eyes turned hard and assessed Sela, then looked down. “The crash was a horror, a nightmare… and what if I’d died, been done with this whole mess?”

Later when Sela entered the common area, she found Patrick getting his coat.

“She’s suffering. A good fit for me. Are you leaving?”

His strong face had gone pallid. “Good, I dated her once–turned out badly…Look, I have to go. My father is very ill.”

Sela watched him from a window overlooking the parking lot. He folded himself into the red Porsche and sped off. Marty and Patrick? It felt too intimate a fact, and sad.

Heidi heard on the news that Mr. Allard K. Windsor of Windsor Manufacturing had barely survived a heart attack. Patrick was gone for ten days. She found herself looking for his coat or going into the kitchen, scanning the air for mint and basil or dark roast coffee. She wondered if he would return. His clients had inquired of him and were told he was on medical leave. She had seen several on his caseload and facilitated one of his groups.

Tryon-Public Lands Day 9-25-10 061One Tuesday morning she entered her office and found him sitting in the dark. She turned on the light, wondering how he’d gotten in. He looked gaunt and his eyes were glazed with sleeplessness. He didn’t smell of herbs but of sorrow and ghostly dreams and a woodsy scent that clung to him from muddy forest trails.

“He thinks he’ll manage a comeback. Jane is taking over even more work. He asked me what I’m going to do. Well, for years I had another agenda: be a carouser, a blowhard, the fool. He understood–notches on the belt and all in his mind–but he hasn’t forgiven me for not sticking with him and the company. I prefer people. I understand how emotions and addictions pair up; he has no patience.”

Sela heard the puzzle of his grief and wanted to place her hand on his, which rested on her desk inches away. She couldn’t do more than murmur. He was talking to her, letting truths out into the bald light of reality. They each were like flags raised on a mast; they had to flutter and fold in the wind as he drifted. This was only a small part of all he had kept at bay. Sela’s breath caught in her throat.

“If my father leaves us I’ll have to live with too much…not things, regrets. I need to make some choices.”

He jerked his head up and his eyes were lake blue, clean of pretense, empty of illusion. For now.

“It seems so,” she said and was shaken when tears slipped from a secret place, then receded.

He held out his hand. “I’m here for a reason. Not to work. Come with me.”

Sela stirred but did not get up.

“Please.” He dropped his hand and she rose. “And thank you for being here.”

They ran down the stairs and into thin light. Sela lifted her face to the chill air; it smelled of ice and earth, the breath of winter rain. The cold brought her a warning of stark loneliness and a promise of comforting solitude.

“Here,” he said, pointing to a happy blue MG MGB Roadster convertible. “A 1973. Not that expensive, but it’s yours for nothing.”

“What? I couldn’t possibly…you’re my teammate! Why on earth are you doing this?”

“Lightening my burdens, my friend. It’s just transportation to you, another irrelevant object for me. I’m taking a leave of absence, Sela. I don’t know what’s ahead. Enjoy it; we’ll take care of the transfer later.”

Rain erupted from the sky and pelted them. His face blurred and she gasped for air. Patrick opened her palm, placing the keys there. He brushed wet hair from her eyes. Backed away slowly.

“Wait! Where are you going–don’t you need a ride?”

But he only waved, then was engulfed by a veil of rain.

200236712-001

What Counts is Being Here Together

Tired, pensive and grateful: these come close to describing my feelings as I write tonight. Frankly, I had thought of skipping this post or maybe copying and pasting an already-published excerpt of my novel and leaving it at that. I am not deluded about the importance of these posts to others.

However, I love to write. I actually need to write, especially since life has so much to tell me.

And the last couple of days have been filled to overflowing. I just returned from two days attendance at the Northwest Institute of Addictions Studies conference. Each summer, it is given in partnership with the Addictions Studies Program at Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Counseling. There were various sessions offered, as usual, presented by local, state and national experts. The topics ranged from adolescent opiate abuse, mindfulness-based relapse prevention, health care and the need for integrating addictions services, and the complicated challenges of treating gamblers. I chose my sessions and gained some good information despite too-cool or too-stuffy rooms and long hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs. I have been to a lot of conferences over the span of twenty-five years. I even gave my own trainings in the distant past. And it’s seldom the information that interests me so much as the people, familiar or not.

As I settled in the first day, someone said my name. Sitting down beside me was a fine-featured woman. We had worked together thirteen years earlier with adolescents at a large outpatient mental health program. I had been at an outlying satellite office but still recalled her as being efficient, smart and a lot younger and more educated than I was. She told me she had burned out quickly so left the organization to raise a family and re-think things.

“But all those kids–I want to work with them again. So much is at stake for them. I think I can still help.” 

She was earnest and amazed by the new research about teens and addictions. I wished her well and ran into her later when she was deep in conversation with a presenter. Her enthusiasm was infectious. 

I saw another past co-worker in the hallways not once but three  times. We had worked with indigent, often homeless adults in city center but E. had left to work at the state level, doing more research-driven work that impacted policymaking. I had just read something she had written. We chatted easily although it had been seven years. She had recently retired.

“I think about it,” I admitted. “But I’m not sure I’m done with this work.”

“Oh, I’m starting a private practice,” she assured me and we laughed.

At one session I struck up a dialogue with a fiftyish, burgundy-haired woman who had driven six hours from a more rural area to Portland. She had worked with teens exclusively and was looking for more effective tools with which to treat them.

“They might be some tougher than when I started out twenty-five years ago but I’m tougher, too.”

I nodded; I understood what she meant. And the way she held herself and spoke convinced me. But as she spoke of her clients, her face softened with compassion and her eyes brightened.

Across a large room I spotted a man with whom I’d worked at a Native American treatment facility. I couldn’t catch his eye so I started to turn–then he waved and smiled.  I thought about the couple of years I spent with tribal members from all over the western states. They brought with them devastated lives and longing for their traditions. I have kept the beaded necklaces and bracelets some gifted me in a special box.

During lunch today I took a break from the throngs and sat by the hotel pool, eating my almond butter sandwich and soaking up the sunshine. A man sat down with his salad and quietly ate. I closed my eyes and was about to doze off when I glanced at him. His name tag informed me he was K. and worked at an agency near my place of employment. He was a mental health clinician so I closed my eyes again. I primarily address substance disorders and related issues. My impulse was to avoid a heavy conversation about mental health versus addictions treatment. But it is unlike me to not talk to someone who is sitting beside me, especially at a conference or other sociable gathering.

“How are you enjoying the sessions?” I asked.

We were off and running. He shared with me how he had only gotten into the field about eight years ago after a successful business career. He’d  thought he’d found something he loved and it turned out he was right. We covered the gamut from the problems inherent in diagnosis and the skills we try to bring to treating our clients, what works better and what seems to fail, and what surprises we have had. A couple of laughs were shared. We’ve had separate yet common experiences helping people to help themselves. I have outlasted him only because I have been at it longer. I recognized in his crinkly eyes a familiar gleam of passion for the work and we concluded we both will keep at this as long as we are able.

“Do you think you’ll find a way to do this even when you retire one day?” he asked as we wrapped it up.

“I can’t imagine not getting out there and being of some service,” I admitted. “Youth at risk, those waylaid or homebound by illness, people with hard luck and living in shelters, and, of course, alcoholics and addicts–there is so much going on that could use more helping hands.” I paused. “Or maybe I’ll write about it all. Probably both.”

“Yes, one way or  another, there’s work to do,” he agreed and warmly shook my hand. “I’ll keep you in mind when my clients need addictions treatment.” 

It was near the end of the day and I had one last session to attend on gambling. I looked forward to it but I was winding down.

“Hey Cynthia!”

I turned around and there was D. striding toward me. Over six feet tall, a bit heavier than the last time I had seen him, he exuded confidence and well-being. I grabbed his hand but he pulled me into a hug. We caught up briefly before the presenters began. He now sat on the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, still advocating for addicted persons albeit in another manner. I wondered what that was like for him; he said he enjoyed it. I asked him about his two children, how he was doing. It was a too-brief chat, as had been the case all day. But we’ve had many such exchanges over the years; I will run into him again.

 Truthfully,we don’t have to say much. He was barely twenty when he came to the field as a wide-eyed, fledgling counselor at the locked residential facility where I worked. Our clients were gang-affected or affiliated youth; kids who lived on the streets; kids carrying anger and trauma with them from morning til night, addictions their only escape. Yet those addictions  brought them to us, and DB and I sat with them, sorrowed with them, tried to protect them and each other awhile as their pain escaped like boiling water. D and I and the other counselors encouraged each other. It was not a very safe place but it was a place we chose to be.

We kept watch. We bore witness. If needed, we gave permission for them to tell their own truths. And we asked them to hold on while we cared so that they could discover and practice a better way.

Sometimes it all worked. And many times it did not. But D and I and the others kept at it because it was what we wanted to do. Or perhaps it chose us,  in the end.

As I leave the conference I recall K. asking me an odd question.

“Do you still remember them years later? I mean, do you think about your old clients and wonder if they are okay, if they got better, how their lives turned out?”

Yes, I told him. I remember their eyes, their dreams, their stories, the way they struggled to become whole and free. I remember their losses and triumphs.  They have left with me something of who they are, some more than others. Their lives never stop moving me.

And, too, I remember the dozens of counselors I have worked with and the conversations, large and small, that have made a difference to me. And the dignity of silent understanding when needed. Seeing them once more is a comfort: we just keep getting on with it.

What matters most is that we really are in this together–all just people in the end, lost or found or somewhere in between.