Saturday, July 26, 2008

Brave New Life

About a month ago I started thinking about the bittersweet feeling that went along with knowing that, on August 8th, a lot of people I respect the hell out of are going to head back to work. I felt then, about a month ago, that I would miss that. Probably. Certainly.
I wondered what life had in store for me. What would I "be" next? Would I ever "be" anything? Whatever I would "be", and would I "be" any good at it? I've always been "just" a classroom teacher. What am I now?

What am I good for?

So last week I walked into the counseling center on what was my first "full" day in my new life. I was now a contracted mental health counselor at the center where I've volunteered for about 3 years. I got there about 15 minutes early, and as I rounded the corner, the clinical director saw me, picked up the phone, pushed a button on the base, and held it out to me:

"Talk to her. She's in jail for DWI. Her best friend just died and her divorce became final. Really upset, doesn't know where her kids are. Wants to talk to someone."
So I spent my first twenty minutes as a counselor trying to make it meaningful to this distraught mother that her only phone call was to talk to me.

Afterwards, the director was shuffling through the papers on his desk and mentioned he was going up to the hospital to check on a homeless patient who swallows razor blades. Usually, she (the patient) would put epoxy on them, he told me, but this time, she didn't, and now she had internal injuries and an infection.
The clinical director said this matter-of-factly, the the way you or I might say, Usually, I take my flat kit with me, but today i didn't, so I couldn't fix my flat.

A small, silent thought formed in my head: please, pleasedon'tassignmetotherazobladewoman pleasedon'tassignmetotherazorbladewoman pleasedon'tassignmetotherazobladewoman...

It wasn't that I didn't know what to do, mind you, or that I doubted own abilities. It's just that I wasn't ready for something quite that intense on my first day as a new professional. This counseling center is very central to a lot of social services catering to homeless and indigent people, and now as a counselor, it was real. This is real. Real lives. Real, painful, lives.

Most of the patients where I work are working people who can't quite afford the full cost of a mental health professional, but about a third that come don't have anywhere else to go for various reasons. Nearly everyone gets some sort of help to pay for the services, and that number is on the rise. Some patients are dropped off by the police when police decide they don't need to be in jail for their erratic behavior; they need a counselor.
Some have families they go home to.
Others don't have any family any more - if they have relatives, those slam the phone down when they call.

And here I am, in the thick of it. In the midst of these lives.
These, painful, disheveled lives.

Another counselor was assigned the razor blade patient, but I was asked, Well, what do you think?

I think we need to find out why she swallows razor blades,
I offered. Then we'll know what to focus on. I went on to explain how her answer might differentiate her as having a psychotic disorder, PTSD, and/or a couple others that popped into my head and I thought, astonished, Holy cow, I actually know this shit.

The director nodded, signaling his approval (I hope) and hurried off.

I spent the day talking to more people, some in person, some on the phone, all of them in pain. On the way home, I listened to a song that kind of reminded me of the ruined and pain-filled lives that I often see at this counseling center, and that you might see on the street. Sweet Baboo has often worked with these kinds of lives as well, homeless veterans with severe and persistent mental illnesses.

But more importantly,

MUCH more importantly,

Well, I don't think I'll walk around feeling all sorry for myself, wrapped in my existential angst who am I? what am I? any more.

My new vocation will be a daily exercise in perspective, and, will include feeling the wonder at my outrageous fortune, my health, my ability to run, and all the love and friends I have in my life.



  1. It sounds intense. Good luck to you as you navigate that line between being there for those people and trying not to take their troubles home.

  2. see? You totally know what you're doing.

    Go you!

  3. These people don't care how many Ironman triathlons you have completed, or how many marathons you have ran, or how slow or fast you swim...They only care that YOU are THERE and that you listen and you care. And that you can help them.

    I think that's totally cool.

    And they have no idea how lucky they are to have someone as caring as you trying to fix them.

    Pirate (like most always) is right. GO YOU. I think you can help them all.

  4. Amazing how sometimes things are put in perspective for us, huh?

    I feel that way in my job too and many times when I am out "suffering" on my long runs or rides I think about those kiddos and it reminds me that I do this because I can, because I want to.

    You are going to be the best counselor because you are compassionate, smart, and have a great sense of what people need. You, my friend, are amazing.

  5. I'm a Paralegal in a small criminal defense firm. We deal with the 'down and out' of the county. I've never had an unsatisfied day at work, but have had many aggravating ones. I have a hard time not being able to 'fix' the world. Your comment about "exercise in perspective" hits it dead on. Many times throughout my week I think "there but for the Grace of God go I." I think you'll be very happy in your new career. Good luck.


  6. Being a counselor is challenging, rewarding. I love it! You will be great Misty..

  7. Best of luck in your new place, it sounds like just the kind of challenge you are so good at tackling.

  8. Brave new life full of good deeds. You are clearly in the right place.

  9. The satisfaction that you will feel at the end of most days will make the frustration of other days unimportant. You can so do this job. You have the heart and natural ability just trust in it!

  10. You are makiing a difference in poeple's lives, that is awesome!!


  11. Working in the human health sector is challenging but rewarding. You are making a tremendous & positive change in the people's lives that you assist. You really are making the world a better place.

  12. Welcome to the mental health world. It's draining but rewarding. Email if you ever need advice, etc.


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