Posts Tagged ‘social work’

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I read everything I could get my hands on and wrote short stories and envisioned myself someday rubbing elbows with Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Now, Carl Hiassen. Wouldn’t that be a highlight?

The father questioned me about this once, oddly curious what skill set I might acquire through this work. It appeared to him to be a means, not an end.

“I want to be a writer,” I informed him. “Like Stephen King.”

He snorted derisively. “You better find something else you’re good at if you want to be able to pay your rent.”

That was the end of that conversation. As things in our house had a pattern of doing, it never came up again. I stopped writing altogether after his death–there was too much energy to put into surviving to wonder if I’d ever meet Stephen King. I did exactly as he suggested–I found a job that paid my bills and put away the writer fantasy for a long time. Even better, I found jobs where I could write, albeit technical writing and not nearly as entertaining as storytelling, but it was something.

If y’all have talked to me you already know I didn’t set out to write a book when I started writing Urban Tidepool. I was simply collecting memories and laying them out, sharing with my spouse and a few very close friends. I guess it doesn’t matter so much that I didn’t mean to write a book because as I continued along, it was definitely shaping up to look like a book. So I bought some artwork and imagined it on shelves in bookstores and available as a download.

It was a slow, excruciating process to pour those memories out, then hold each one up like an offering to the group of beta readers. Would this new information have any effect on the friendship? And what of the people who worked with me? Our donors? Our agency stakeholders? What would they think?

The process was two-fold. The first pass was always to evaluate the writing. Did I express that clearly? Did it have typos? Are there any awkward sentence structures? That was the easy part. The second pass was more personal and was more about emotionally and mentally processing what the readers had just read and what I had recently written. How could these things have happened? Why wasn’t anyone watching? Why didn’t someone stop this? Parts of the story are difficult to read so you might imagine how difficult it was to write and then evaluate. For example, in reading the story of the death of my mother when I was seven, are there any typos? Are the sentences well structured? It was far easier to take that higher level overview and make corrections than it was to re-immerse in the event to be able to describe it, then be able to talk about why it was happening and why it could continue.

I finished writing in 2013 and put Tidepool away. It was a rattlesnake curled up on my driveway and I knew if I got too close, it would strike. I put away the thought that I might be a writer, let alone in the calibre of Stephen King. There it sat, on the closet shelf, for seven years.

Early this year, I decided this was the year I would get it moving again. Behind the scenes, I’ve been working on edits and a few minor updates. I gathered everything I needed to launch a Kickstarter campaign and not quite two weeks ago, the campaign went live.

In 11 days, I raised 100% of the budget goal, so my project is a go. The campaign ends on September 11th and I’ll take my orders to print. I’ll put my book, this ten year project, into people’s hands late this summer, or early in the fall.

Hey, Dad! Are you watching? I did what you said and I got the job that lets me pay the bills, and guess what? I’m a writer now too!

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To order a copy of the book or just support the Urban Tidepool Kickstarter campaign, you can find me here. Click on the link and it will take you to my project.

https://www.kickstarter.com/discover/advanced?ref=nav_search&term=Urban%20Tidepool

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“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”    ~Maya Angelou

I’ve done a lot of reading and attended some trainings over this winter on the topic of trauma and trauma informed care and here’s what I have learned so far. When someone is in the middle of a meltdown, the thinking part of their brain stops working. No lie. The science is there. Kids, teenagers, all of us. It just stops. Decision making skills? Out the window. Language? Gone. Nothing above the brain mid-line is in gear–only the parts that can feel and act—or react.

This new learning caused me to notice the questions that we ask of people at those times. I’ve done it in my job over the years. “How can I help you?” ‘What do you need?” The questions are innocent, an outpouring of our desire to support and assist people we care about. They can’t engage in those questions with us, though. Their brain has turned off. They can’t answer a question like “What do you need” when they can’t access the upper part of their brain where language lives. We are asking them to do something with us that they are literally unable to do.

I am reminded of a Ram Dass book one of my graduate school instructors shared with us that talked about the helplessness of the helping professional. That book was written before we even knew any of the neuroscience that is driving our understanding today. Back then, it just resonated with me that sometimes the most important thing you could do with someone in crisis was to honor them by witnessing their pain. Just be with them. I have carried that message throughout my career.

Working with LGBT youth, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to honor them by witnessing their pain. We, as the agency staff, have no access to their family home. We have limited access to their school, and then only by invitation. We meet kids in tremendous pain who are being verbally and physically harassed, assaulted, threatened…kids are dealing with trauma on a frequent basis.

Neuroscience is also telling us now that people who experience trauma in childhood (abuse, neglect, parental mental illness or addiction, sexual assault, witnessing domestic violence, natural disasters, and a few others) develop cognitively in a different way than do people who do not experience trauma. The more trauma, the more different the brain and the more likely for health and mental implications in adulthood. The science is fascinating. Take a look at a quick, easy and interesting overview by Dr. Nadine Harris Burke. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk&t=577s

I wouldn’t have to scan the brains of some of the LGBT kids we work with to know that there are some differences in development going on there. We know there’s been an uptick in harassment and assault in the last couple of years (https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%202015%20National%20School%20Climate%20Survey%20%28NSCS%29%20-%20Executive%20Summary.pdf). We know there’s been, at best, benign neglect of their needs, and, at worst, open hostility toward LGBT students, especially trans students.  We also already know that LGBT youth make up between 20% and 40% of the kids who are homeless and on the streets every year, particularly high on the T, most particularly on trans youth of color. Newer research tells us that LGBT kids also comprise about 20% of youth who are incarcerated.  (Should we place bets on how many of those kids were homeless before they were locked up?)

Those are some mindblowing stats when you take into account that we make up…what….maybe 10% of the general population? Conservative stats say 5%, but let’s be generous and say 10% for the hell of it.

Now let’s add one more twist. Where’s my bugle? This information should come with a bugle blaring to announce its arrival. According to Dr. Caitlin Ryan, researcher at The Family Acceptance Project, and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading trauma experts in the world, all is takes is one person.

You read that right. All it takes is ONE person who hears, one person who witnesses, one person who honors and believes to begin to relieve some of the effect of that trauma. That’s one school counselor. One school nurse. One social worker in individual session. One mom. One brother. One neighbor. One volunteer at Youth Outlook or Big Brother/Big Sister. One person who is safe and trustworthy and respectful can provide an opportunity for rewiring a brain that has been traumatized. One person can be the protective factor that stops a desperate kid from making an attempt on their own life.

Wow. Think about the power you have to affect a kid’s life. Not just their life right now, but if you listened to Dr. Burke’s TED talk, you know it’s the power to affect a kid’s life throughout the life span. It’s not about the question at that moment of crisis: “What do you need?”  or “How can I help?” Remember, in meltdown mode, none of us can actually process that question.

Thirty years into this, although I see what Ram Dass meant, I don’t know that I would limit my description of this as helplessness when we watch someone hurt. It has honor. It has meaning. True enough, we may not be able to stop it from happening, but being there with someone while he/she/they hurt, holding space for them to have their experience safely, has the potential to change cognitive wiring. We can get to those pesky questions later. First, we just have to be. We are amazing critters—both what we are as individuals and what we have the ability to do for one another.

Yes, Dr. Angelou. I agree. When we know better, we do better.

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Today is day 21 of an online meditation practice I signed up for, led by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. I haven’t had much success with meditation when I’ve attempted it in the past, but this spoke to me and I decided to give it another try. Today’s meditation was on creating peace. Sarvesham Shantir Bhavatu. I desire peace for all beings.

On Friday, I presented at a workshop on LGBT youth issues. I had the 8 to 9 am spot and not being a morning person, it was a minor miracle that I got up on time, got there and didn’t even have my shirt on inside-out or backwards, which has been known to happen on occasion. (This explains my preference for shirts with buttons when I’m doing public speaking. Buttoning them if they’re on backwards is just hell!)

I digress. I had an hour to do what is normally at least a 90-minute presentation. I talked in fast forward. Developmental theory, models of coming out, now superimpose the stages of coming out over typical adolescent development thus creating the common challenges that face LGBT youth. I got them all in and successfully yielded the floor to the next speaker without tripping, spilling water down my right-side out and frontwards-facing shirt or otherwise making a spectacle of myself.

Post-workshop, I stationed myself by the door to collect evaluation forms from the exiting attendees. Two gentlemen approached. They’d been there all day, early attendees who’d been around during the 8 to 9 am slot. The first gentleman came to a full stop in front of me, not the pause-and-push-a-paper at me that most other folks had done as they breezed by, and he held out his hand for me to shake. I put my palm against his and he gripped tightly—admirably!—and said, “You won’t remember me.”

Curious, I perked up. Should I remember him? Had we met previously?

“I attended a training you did many years ago…” His voice trailed off and he started to chuckle. “Back when both of our hair was much darker.”

I chuckled with him, uncertain about where this was going and now a little distracted by the thought of my greying spikes. He still held my hand and his grip firmed up a bit more.

“I wanted to say thank you.”

My head tipped. “Thank you for what?” I asked.

He cleared his throat and his dark eyes crinkled in the corners. “I sat through your training as a young professional. In corrections. And I thought, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

He did say this was a thank you, right?

“So what did I do that was helpful?” I asked.

“A couple of years ago, my kid came out and everything you said would happen, happened. You helped my family so much…and you didn’t even know.”

I tightened my own grip on his hand and I felt the bridge spanning the space between our hearts click into place. “I know now.”

I was barely tuned in to the next few folks who handed me their evaluation forms as I watched him go and his words sank in. The bridge stretched and I knew I’d feel that for days to come. How many years ago would that training have been when he sat there thinking yeah, yeah, yeah? Eight? Ten? How old was his kid when that training happened? And how old when the kid came out to him? He didn’t have to say anything to me. I was touched that he made it a point to make the connection, touched that he’d stopped and taken my hand. He made it personal. For him, I was sure it had been personal for a long time.

Sometimes what I get to do for a living is humdrum. I push a lot of paperwork and answer a lot of emails on a lot of days. Then there are days like Friday, when I go out to do a presentation and learn that something I said in a training however many years ago made a difference to someone…maybe eased some pain they were experiencing.

I desire peace for all beings.

My Catholic school roots stir. Maybe St. Francis was onto something, praying for something that would echo through my career before people could even spell LGBT. Make me an instrument of peace. That St. Francis must have been one smart dude.

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This post is inspired by Domestic Violence Awareness month and based on a scene described in Urban Tidepool. In keeping with the Urban Tidepool theme and with previous posts, let us take a look at those places in systems where kids sometimes get lost. As parents and service providers, we all stand on the theory that if a kid is being hurt, they should run and tell some adult that they trust who can help them. Should we be more specific? “Go and talk to THAT person!”  Should we only encourage them to talk to their parents? How does that work in families where the parents are involved in the violence? How do we go about determining who is that safe person that they can run to? And what can we do if it goes wrong?

Dear Father M.,

Do you remember that Saturday in February, 1978? I do. It was brutally cold that day. Did you find it odd that I showed up at church without a jacket? Did you find it odd that I met you at the doors as you were opening them for confession? Had I been you, I might have found both of those things odd.

I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on the jacket. Maybe you thought I lived close enough to the church that I just ran across the street without thinking about it. People did that. Maybe you thought it was merely a matter of a few seconds that I was outside in that frigid weather and then I’d be welcomed into the warmth of the vestibule.

I’m even willing to give you the benefit of the doubt about me meeting you at the door…almost as if I was desperate to get inside. Maybe you thought I had some dark, scary secret to tell you in the confessional. People did that too.

You know what I’m not willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on? Come on, think about. I’ll bet you can guess. No? Maybe you don’t remember.

I wish I could forget.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…”

No matter what else happened that day, I’m not able to give you the benefit of the doubt over me telling you what was happening in my house and you ignoring it. (Yeah, that kind of explains why I showed up in the middle of February not wearing a jacket, doesn’t it? Sometimes we have to do that.) I’m not willing to overlook the fact that when I told you I was being hurt, the best you could offer me was the directive to pray harder so the person who was hurting me would stop.

Is that really what they taught you in seminary? When a kid comes to you—and let’s be honest, Father, I was 12 years old…I was just a kid…and discloses being hurt, that you should suggest that the power of prayer can make battering stop? That a kid has input into an abusive situation? What kind of help was that to suggest that I had control over a volatile situation through the vehemence of my pleas to your god? Was it the influence of the neighborhood? Was it the era? Or was it just easier?

I’ve spent more than 25 years in the social work field and I’ve had my share of days when kids came to me and said something similar to what I said to you. And you know how those conversations go. There is never an easy way through those and the most important thing we have to stress is that being hurt is not the kid’s fault. I hope with everything in me that I have not failed them with whatever action I took, that nothing I said or did implied to them that they were responsible for their situation, that they, in fact, could control it if only…  If only what? The single acceptable answer in those situations is always, “This is not your fault.”

I came to you, Father, cold and shivering and beaten and all I wanted to hear you say was, “This is not your fault.” But you turned your back and looked away.

Catholicism is far behind me but I still hope that new priests are coached in how to handle such situations, to be supportive and maybe a little kinder to the developing, small human being sitting in front of them. We have a responsibility to those developing, small humans to treat them kindly and with some dignity. You know, like people. Someday maybe I’ll be able to give you the benefit of the doubt on this point too, that perhaps you gave me such a sad and hurtful answer because that was all you’d been taught. I really want to believe you didn’t turn away because it was easier that way. But out of my doubt, what I’m left with now is simply, “Bless you, Father, for you too have sinned…” And I hope that when you utter those words, you are met with  more compassion than you offered in 1978.

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Coming Full Circle

Posted: September 29, 2013 in Blog
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I spent yesterday morning walking the AIDS Walk in Chicago. It was a wonderful morning to walk the lakefront with thousands of other like-minded souls out there giving their time and money to a cause about which they feel strongly. I bear in mind that there are no such things as coincidences when I can see so clearly, yesterday and every other day, how stepping off the trajectory of being a mental health therapist to step into the trajectory of working in HIV prevention brought me to this amazing place where I work with LGBT kids.

In the early 90s, I served as the program manager for housing programs in upstate NY for people living with HIV and AIDS. While hardly new, the disease was still impacting significantly on the gay men’s community and beginning its double duty of impacting heavily on communities of color. The cocktail drugs were just getting positioned to hit the market. The guys in the house got sick. Very sick. Very quickly.

There was nothing in my training to become a therapist that prepared me for what we did in that program. I was accustomed to people confronting inner demons around abuse, sexual assault, divorcing parents, and other issues of loss. I was accustomed to sitting quietly while people blotted tears and tried to put puzzle pieces together. But nothing got me ready for running a residential program with men who were so sick, some who were actively dying. This was not about confronting inner demons and healing. This was about kangaroo feeding pumps for guys who could no longer swallow. It was about bringing food to people who couldn’t get out of bed because of the neuropathy in their feet. It was about following naked men around the house with a towel, asking them not to urinate down the heat registers, offering to cover them, to afford them some dignity and some privacy, when AIDS dementia was eating holes in their brains and it no longer occurred to them that they weren’t wearing clothes. It was about physically picking up a body experiencing wasting syndrome out of a wheelchair so someone could sit on couch cushions and be in somewhat less agony. It was about cleaning bathrooms and wiping bloody, fecal covered handprints off the walls when bodies eroded from the inside out. It was about bleach and AZT and tears in the office when no one was looking.

I learned a lot in that job. I learned how to respectfully navigate a conversation with someone who was actively considering physician assisted suicide. I learned about race relations when one of the guys who greeted me at the door with coffee every morning and would sit with me in the office to tell me about his evening eventually told me that he thought of me as an honorary black woman. And when he grew sicker, I learned about joy when I would watch the Oh Happy Day scene from Sister Act 2 with him over and over again when he could no longer walk and his days were spent on the couch in the living room. It was the only thing that made him smile. He was beautiful when he smiled. I learned how to sit death watch with men who had no families, who were utterly alone in the world. And I learned that our grief, as a staff team, was as real as any family’s when we went to memorial service after memorial service and were forced to lay some of those men to rest in Potter’s Field because no one could afford to bury them.

It was a difficult job to leave, even when it was clear to me that I needed to go. I wrestled with the option to move to the Midwest to take a job running an agency for LGBT kids. Could I really let go and move away?

“What a wonderful way to come full circle,” one of my friends said over dinner. “Instead of helping people die with dignity, you will be able to help people live celebrating who they are.”

I like to think that I did that a little bit too, for the NY guys. For some of them, moments of acceptance and respect had come few and far between. Living that with them for several years…seeing it so clearly when they were laid to rest alone with only my staff team and their medical providers there to say goodbye was the perfect springboard to create a whole new agency where that was always the underlying principle.

I believe this—there are no coincidences.

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Shy and Retiring

Posted: September 15, 2013 in Blog
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This week I was interviewed by the nice folks at Zen Parenting Radio (http://zenparentingradio.com/), Cathy and Todd, and they’ll let me know when the show will air. We spent about half our time together talking about my work with LGBT kids and the other half talking about Urban Tidepool, both the book and this blog.

It went better than most conversations in which I disclose being a social worker. You know the ones—where the person you’re talking to looks at you as if you’ve just said you have an infectious disease and responds with, “Oh, you must find that sooo rewarding!” because it’s nicer than saying, “Oh, I’m sorry you drive a rusted out old clunker with Flintstone brakes. What were you thinking when you picked a major?”

Social work as a profession is a curious experience. It’s the only profession I can think of where the people involved put themselves tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes up to $100,000, into debt to get a degree in order to get a job that doesn’t pay enough to allow one to live AND pay off the student loans needed to get the degree needed to get the job he or she just took. Do you see the dilemma there? Social work as a profession is so undervalued that sometimes people in the early stages of their career can’t afford to take job within the profession—or have to take two or three jobs to be able to meet their expenses.

In my last job in NY, my supervisor once asked if I’d heard of the social worker’s investment club. I laughed at her. I thought she was joking. When I realized she was serious, I walked out of the room thinking it was the best example of an oxymoron ever invented. Investment club? So we could retire? Most social workers I know don’t labor along the delusion that they’ll ever be able to retire. They plan to die at their desk, at which time they will be promptly filed in the manila case folder of whichever case they happened to be working on the time. It saves on funeral expenses.

That said, I have given some thought to options for my retirement, even before I got the brilliant idea to invest every free moment in writing a book. Occasionally, I go to meetings and share some of my strokes of genius with the other attendees. To date, no one has chased me out of the room with a butterfly net. I think, though, that secretly they may be jealous that they haven’t thought of these things.

My first inspired plan for retirement was the Chihuahua dairy farm. Picture that. It would be a low level of investment, because it wouldn’t need a lot of room— a herd of Chihuahuas shouldn’t take up a lot of space. My goal: produce Chihuahua cheese. I could envision lots of little stools where we would sit to milk the Chihuahuas and thimble-sized buckets for collecting it. It wasn’t until a friend was kind enough to point out that Chihuahua cheese doesn’t really come from Chihuahuas that I realized I probably needed Plan B.

When I finished grieving the loss of my faithful herd of Chihuahuas, I decided to try to tie my retirement plans to the few business trends I could see overtaking the human services profession. With all of this talk that the 90s brought us of one-stop shopping for all of one’s physical and mental health needs (what the hell happened to consumer choice?), I began to contemplate how professional women are forced to waste time on mundane appointments. Surely we could combine some of those appointment services into the one-stop model. I decided on the spot to go to medical school to become a gynecologist. When I was through with medical school, I would go through auto mechanic school. Another vision came to me—a women’s clinic where people could get their annual GYN exam done while at the same time, the oil was being changed in their car. I even had a name for it: Safety Smear.

The time commitment seemed a little daunting, all that med school and auto mechanic stuff. I kept exploring. When I enrolled in culinary school, I thought I had hit on the answer. My pastry chef training was about being creative and making beautiful things. Unfortunately, it also made me about as round as I am high, so that really wasn’t going to work. I had to ask my fabulous spouse if we could let a few things out, so I’d be more comfortable. She asked me which pants I wanted done. I told her I was thinking more about the doors of my car. That’s where we drew the line on the culinary retirement plans.

So here I am. I have a book written and I’m shopping for an agent. It hasn’t put me thousands of dollars into debt or forced us to let out the doors on my car. As retirement plans go, it seems more appealing than falling over at my desk and being filed with a copy of our annual audit. Just between us, though, I do miss the Chihuahuas.

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Since starting to write Urban Tidepool, many people who learn of the nature of the project have commented, “Oh, you must find writing that to be so cathartic!”  Or, “You must be finding the process to be very therapeutic!”  (You can tell right there I hang around with a lot of social work-y types!) My answer, at first stumbled over, has become smoother going into the third year of work, and I usually say something like, “Well, maybe it will.” It leaves the door open for hope, right?

But the truth is, and my spouse and reading team will attest, this has not been cathartic. It has been hellish painful. The point is, though, that writing for catharsis was never the goal.

The goal all along was to tell a story that will raise questions about where the gaps are in the systems and institutions where kids can get lost. First prompted to begin writing during the It Gets Better buzz, I wanted to open a dialogue about kids surviving situations that A) drove them to desperation and B) drove the compassionate adults around them to search out ways to reassure them that this, too, shall pass and C) took a critical look at some systems and institutions that allowed said situations to get so desperate in the first place.

Over the weekend, I gave presentations in North Carolina on adolescent development and LGBT youth and the current trends in working with LGBT youth.  I give presentations like this often and it always generates wonderful conversations about creating safe spaces for LGBT kids. As social workers, we are trained to look for the red flags, to look for warning signs that let us know that one of our kids is in danger. When I left the training Saturday, another question crossed my mind, another intersection of social work and Urban Tidepool. What about the kids who are not sending up the red flags for us to notice, but who need help desperately? What can we do there? How can we even find those kids?

Here’s a shout out to my friends working in social services and education, who have dedicated stress-filled, underpaid careers to caring for kids who hurt, and caring for kids who hurt themselves. As a professional system, how would you rate us at ferreting out those kids who hide in plain sight, bleeding right in front of us, but never once ask for help? I worry about the kids who live on the honor rolls while internalizing chaos at home, or who come home internalizing the chaos they endure at school, until they are percolating like little coffee pots with feet. We all know kids like these. And it makes me wonder, while we’re exploring the gaps in the systems and institutions where they grow up, if telling the story contained in Urban Tidepool can facilitate conversations with those straight-A, overachieving kids hiding right under our noses.

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This is an interesting place, this intersection of social work, chef school and writing. My career in social work can be tracked by the pages-long to-do lists that most of us keep. I suspect that there are now more social work days behind me than in front of me and I find my to-do list shifting. I know some of it is prompted by writing Urban Tidepool, and probably some is prompted by my pursuit of a pastry chef degree (just ten credits short). I think it may also be partly prompted by what I’ve read since I started writing and how it has stuck with me. My to-do list, which I couldn’t get through a day without a few years ago, is becoming a to-be list.

The question that comes along with that goes something like, “It isn’t so much about what I want to do on this planet, so what is it that I want to be for the remaining time that I’m here?” While there are still things on my bucket list such as feed an orphaned baby elephant, there is a definite pull away from what I want to produce to what I want to embody. It’s a tough list to put on paper. So far, I have managed to identity a few things that relate back to my career choices.

For my social work self, I want to be comfort.

For my pastry chef self, I want to be imagination.

For my Urban Tidepool self, I want to be peace.

When compared to my pages-long to-do list, this list looks simple, right? What jumps out at me, though, is that if I do those things…just those three things, I wonder if it will accomplish many of the same things I’ve worked toward on my social work to-do list but on a much bigger scale.

What about you? Have you thought about your to-be list?Image