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Friday, July 29, 2011

"He Said What About Your Mom?" Trying to Help Clients Keep Perspective When I don't Have Any

I had a young man come into my office, a bright, precocious older child living in a group home for a variety of reasons, most of which were not his fault. He happens to be black. His crime of the week? Getting into a fight with another group home boy, a new boy to the house. So we discuss this because somewhere in the middle of all this we have developed rapport. I’m not sure why, except that one week he was telling me therapists can’t help him and the next week he had his guard down. I passed some kind of test, or maybe his life is just going better. Regardless, he tells me his side of the story. He tells me this new kid was calling his mother names. Not just “your momma is so fat” kind of stuff, but real names. This kid, according to my client, called his mother a “nigger.” I apologize for even posting that word because of its ugliness, dehumanization of blacks in America, and the years of innocent blood seeping from every letter.

Now, I am a white girl, so this label has never been used against anyone in my family. But I know the history of this word, and its history is evil. The little boy who used this word does not know that this word conjures up hundreds of years of cruel subjugation, but he needed to learn right then and there that it’s not okay to use that kind of language. My client helped him learn this lesson by hitting him in the face.
Personally, I believe a good smack in the face is an awesome object lesson especially for boys, who often use violence as a way to establish a pecking order. If one of my sons ever used this word against anyone I would not have an issue with my husband using some degree of corporal punishment to get the idea across that we NEVER dehumanize others.

But I am not serving in the capacity of a mother or a private citizen. I am serving in the capacity of a therapist, a therapist who is aware that in a group home, it doesn’t matter WHY you punched the guy in the face, it matters that you did, so you must have a “behavior problem.” Never mind that fighting is a common behavior for young boys, especially if you stick 6 of them from different backgrounds, all with chips on their shoulders, into one small house and supervise them with rotating staff with High School diplomas who don’t stick around longer than a few months. Never mind that a lot of these kids come from xenophobic backgrounds to begin with so they are actually scared of people with different skin colors because they were trained to be by their families of origin. Never mind that some of them don’t really see what the point is to making changes because they may NEVER GET TO GO HOME, no matter what they do, and fighting and destruction are the only means they feel they have to make a statement because they never a say in getting taken away from mom.

Regardless of the difficult circumstances these kids are placed in, they are expected to follow rules, to play nice, and to get passing grades in school. I get that we can’t enable bad behavior just because someone has had a hard life. But it’s really easy for a social worker to say that who came from a middle class life of stability, where people don’t use nasty words against other people’s mothers, and you don’t have to watch your back every minute of the day.

Anyhow, I digress. It does my group home kid no good to have a therapist say, “Sounds like that kid had it coming! That’ll teach him to use nasty names about other people’s mothers!” He still gotten written up even if I think he had cause. And who’s to say my client didn’t call the little boy’s mom a “Cracker” or a “Beaner” a few minutes before?  I only get one side of the story. So, I plod onward, asking him what he will do differently the next time, encouraging him to rise above his environment, sharing my analogy of a lobster in a bucket (you don’t have to put a lid on a bucket of live lobsters, because as soon as one tries to get out, the others pull him right down in their own attempts to get out) and encouraging him to not let the ignorance of others pull him downward.

But as part of me is really glad he punched that kid in the face, and you better believe I understand where he is coming from. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

This is Your Choice: You Can Do it With a Good Attitude or a Bad Attitude

Growing up, when I was given chores or other responsibilities, sometimes I would ask, "Do I have a choice?" My mom and dad always had the same answer:
"Of course you have a choice! You can do it with a good attitude or a bad attitude!"
To which I would sigh resignedly and go and do whatever it was they asked me to do, believing there wasn't actually a choice at all.

The memory of these words often resonate with me at work because I am often asked to do things I seriously don't want to do. I am assigned clients who I feel uncomfortable, or unqualified, working with, and I am asked to complete tasks which I dislike or disagree with. But its where I work, and no one is asking me my opinion or my permission, and its my best chance and hope of fulfilling my own personal goals.

I recently watched a movie called "The Rundown" starring The Rock. In the movie, his character, Beck, is a mob enforcer who has no taste for violence and just wants to open up his own restaurant. He gives people 2 options:
Beck: I need you to make a choice for me.

Travis: What choice?

Beck: Option A or Option B. Option A: we walk out of here nice and easy, we go back to the airstrip, and then we begin our long journey back to Los Angeles. There'll be no bruises, no broken bones, and no problems.

Travis: What's Option B?

Beck: Pretty much the opposite of A. But I wouldn't recommend that one.

Travis: I'll take option "C."
Beck: Travis, there is no option "C."
Travis: Really?
Beck: Mm-hmm.

Travis:Are you sure? I mean, big boy,there's always an option "C."

   Travis opts for Option C, and eventually ends up with option B. I keep finding myself thinking, "where's my option C? I'd like another choice, please." But that's not really how the system works, not if I want to keep my job.

   A lot of the kids I work with are system kids, in foster homes or group homes, and a large part of their symptoms results from the grief rage they continue to experience as a result of being ripped from their families by CPS, even if it was for their survival. They have no choice either, and the message they get in their group home and from their social workers is "that's the way it is, so start getting in line." That's easier said than done. I pick up on their rebellion, and while I can't condone their choices, I can empathize with their stance.

  So, like my little foster care/ group home kids, I still have the following choice, the choice presented in every seemingly involuntary situation: I can do it with a good attitude or a bad attitude. I don't always choose good attitude, but lately I have been trying to do this for my own sanity. I have been trying to suppress the rage I experience when I feel like a square role in a round peg, and focus on what I am doing it all for: My future, my family, and the glory of God. And unlike my system kids, I do have a choice: I choose to keep going to work everyday and subject myself to someone else's authority in order to choose a better future. I am still in control, and I am still choosing. And, someday in the future, because I stayed on track, I'll get my Option C.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

New Diet Plan: Bite Your Tongue!

The White One is the Crazy One
This is the new diet plan I discovered yesterday evening. So far its working more effectively than any diet I've tried in the last year.

Step 1: Acquire a giant, crazy, jumping dog.
Step 2: Engage giant, crazy, jumping dog until, in a fit of wild enthusiasm, she runs toward you and, in mid- jump, rams the bony part of the top of her head into your jaw so that your teeth slam onto both sides of your tongue, resulting in bloody, gnarly gouges.
Step 3. Go to sleep after receiving appropriate medical attention.
Step 4: Wake up and attempt to consume a solid breakfast. Experience the PAIN.
Step 5: Quickly decide that liquids are a better option until your tongue heals.
Step 6: Feel weight drip off with every rumbling of your tummy.

How long does it take a tongue to heal, I wonder? Hopefully not long! I'm getting very very hungry.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: Irvin Yalom's "The Gift of Therapy"

In an industry like mine, there are lots and lots of experts who preach lots and lots of different techniques and strategies. You can easily listen to two (or more!) accomplished authors and experts endorsing completely contradictory techniques and modalities at the same conference. One of the greats that stands out, however, is Dr. Irvin Yalom, the writer of "The Gift of Therapy," "Love's Executioner," and tons of practitioner's guides to group therapy. I am currently reading "The Gift of Therapy," which never fails to bring me new insight into the work that I do and reminds me why I do it.

This is good, old fashioned, long-term therapy that Dr. Yalom endorses, the kind that doesn't bill so well with HMOs but is the reason so many of us went into this work to begin with. The kind of work I yearn to do, and, every once in a while, get to do, even though it rarely ends up in my notes.

Some of the excellent instructions Dr. Yalom gives us are simple, but liberating. Often, a young therapist doesn't know how much to give of herself and how much to keep hidden. Dr. Yalom posited there is no way to be unaffected by our clients, so be honest and transparent with them insomuch as it is helpful in therapy. He proposes scary, here and now encounters which ask honest questions about the relationship between therapist and client which lead to a great deal of fruit in the therapy time. Questions like "How are you and I doing today," or "How close are we today?" These are actually very scary questions for anxious people like me, who fear the answers! But if I ask my clients to be vulnerable, it is only fair that I be vulnerable to them, as long as it is helpful to therapy and not a distraction.

I am doing a crummy job of summarizing Dr. Yalom's work, unfortunately, so I recommend you read it yourself if you are interested in mental health or you are just curious what sorts of things go on in a therapist's mind, or what the purpose of our work really is. He is an excellent story-teller so it is an enjoyable as well as an informative read.