RE-EMERGING

Two months ago, I started a new job. It has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. It was a heart-wrenching decision to leave my former job, but the hours and stress were becoming unbearable. Working 60 hour weeks and spinning my wheels all the time had a really negative impact on my family and personal life, and it wasn’t until I was out of the situation that I realized how much of myself I really lost in that job. The work itself was amazing but the environment was toxic, so being out of that has felt like a new beginning and a re-emergence into the “land of the living.” It kind of feels like that 1990’s movie, Pleasantville, where everything is in black and white and then eventually turns to color. The world definitely looks different outside of the stress and frustration that came with my old job.

I have really missed writing and I’m excited that for the first time in three years, I feel excited to write for myself again. I am not exactly sure where my writing will take me, but I am curious and excited to find out. I don’t feel particularly inspired to write about a certain topic just yet, but I know that will come. The important thing is that I have the desire to write again, something I was really scared wouldn’t come back.

I was scared that my last job permanently damaged a part of me, and I wasn’t sure if it could resurface. Slowly but surely, I can feel the parts of me that I have really missed resurfacing. I know that soon I want to write about burnout at work, because I have never experienced it to the degree I did at my last job. Burnout can happen in any profession, but especially helping professions, and it can not only skew your perspective, but it can make you really lose trust in your own instincts and inner voice.

That’s all for now. Just happy and grateful to be back.

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CONSCIOUS BREATHING

In my late teens, I developed a shellfish allergy while on a Royal Caribbean cruise. It was endless lobster tail night and I had every intention of eating lobster tails until the servers became uncomfortable with my level of gorging and politely rolled me out of the dining room. A third of the way into my endless lobster tail marathon, I looked at my dad and said, “I don’t feel good.” Within minutes I was in full anaphylactic shock and was clinging to life in the ship’s infirmary.

My three sisters sat in the tiny infirmary waiting room crying and waiting for an update. My parents and aunt were in the makeshift emergency room with me, holding my hands and whispering, “It’s okay, you’re going to be okay.”

My memories are spotty from the whole episode, but what is still vivid in my memory is my aunt’s approach to the situation once I was in stable condition, but still in the throes of a severe allergic reaction. My aunt pulled out her laptop and showed me videos of dolphins diving in the surf, and talked to me about the conscious breathing that dolphins do. It’s crazy to think about, right? Dolphins and whales have to think about every breath they take. Unlike humans who breathe naturally and subconsciously, dolphins are conscious breathers. This was soothing to think about. An avid dolphin lover, I felt like I could connect with this concept. As I struggled for every breath in the pit of this Royal Caribbean cruise, I shifted my perspective that conscious breathing wasn’t a bad thing, for some mammals, it was routine.

I remembered this analogy today as it has been a stressful weekend full of conscious breathing. Last week I came down with the flu (or a flu-like virus according to my doctor). It has not been a pleasant sickness. You know, the kind of sickness where you don’t feel awful, but feel just bad enough to lay in bed all day and watch shows, kind of enjoying the excuse to  be lazy? Well this virus I have been battling has not been of the pleasant variety. I have felt like absolute garbage, but even more upsetting has been the affect it has had on my asthma.

Being sick always triggers a lot of anxiety in me, especially when it affects my breathing and asthma. Things can go from OK to emergency room very quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes, so the whole time I’m sick I’m usually anxiously wondering if there is an ER visit in my future. And in my mind, ER = possible medicines = possible allergic reactions. See? I can spiral really quickly. I can go from “hmm, I don’t feel so good” to imagining my lifeless body on an emergency room gurney quicker than you can say “aren’t you being a little dramatic?”

After seeing the doctor over the weekend, he said that if I get any sicker I needed to go to the hospital, and if my asthma got any worse, I would need to consider going on steroids. The issue is that steroids can add a sometimes life-threatening complication if you are already fighting a virus…so that didn’t feel like a good option either. I have felt really stuck, and teetering on the edge of a terrifying unknown all weekend.

I found myself feeling really anxious about all of this. It has been hard, but I’ve been trying to remember to live in the moment and not focus on the unknown future. Every breath I have taken since Friday morning has been conscious and fought for, and I’m exhausted. It has felt like I am breathing through a pillow being held over my face, and frankly, I’m tired of this conscious breathing.

So tonight, I have decided to picture myself as a dolphin. I am a conscious breather not out of medical necessity, but because it is simply the way it is. It brings to mind one of my favorite quotes by Eckhart Tolle:

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”

Medical issues are oftentimes scary for me because I feel helpless and out of control. Even a minor chest cold with asthma brings back vivid memories of anaphylaxis, emergency rooms, and feelings of dread. I worked through a lot of anaphylaxis PTSD in therapy several years ago and in general, the memories don’t affect me too much, but when my breathing is compromised they all come rushing back.

Tonight, I will try a perspective shift. I will choose to live in this moment. I will choose to continue breathing consciously not because I have to, but because I get to.

 

THE DISCONNECT

Expecting another typical intake, I quickly glanced over my notes about my incoming interview and hopped down the stairs to greet an awaiting family of three. Each member of the family wore a different expression. Mom was uncomfortable, dad was excitedly nervous, 10-year old appeared to be a mixture of irritated, bored, and anxious. Nothing out of the ordinary, I thought as I introduced myself to each member of the family. 

During these interviews that I conduct three to four times per week, my job is to spend about thirty minutes with a child and assess the severity of developmental delay and the likelihood of success in our social skill training program. Through natural conversation, questions, and sometimes silly games, I can usually gauge how a child will respond to our supportive but direct method of coaching and skills training. 

“Let’s go upstairs” I said cheerily and turned on my heels. I expected the boy to run ahead of me, eager to see the toys and video games that awaited us upstairs. When the footsteps didn’t follow behind me, I glanced back and saw the boy hit his mom with the stuffed animal he was holding in his arms and a hushed “stop it” come from the father. Instantly I knew something was wrong. The way in which the small boy hit his mom, the lack of surprise from the father, the distant and broken look in the mom’s eyes that now started to make sense. 

We settled into the living room and I asked the young boy, “So, what have you been up to this summer?” He snarled and said, “NO QUESTIONS, NO QUESTIONS!!” I told him it was okay, I wouldn’t ask him any questions. His response was reaching down, putting his hands on the carpet, and shouting “this carpet isn’t soft enough, it has to go!!!” I had to stop myself from smiling, I suddenly knew exactly how this intake was going to go. Or so I thought. 

I have met several kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)– they are a true challenge and there is no winning with them. I can give them a piece of candy and they’ll say they wanted a donut. I’ll give them a donut and they’ll be furious that I didn’t offer the candy. ODD comes in different forms and severities, as most disorders do, and I already knew that this little guy was one of the more severe cases. He hated everyone in the room, and he made sure we knew it. He called his mom a “twit” when she tried to speak, kept acting like he was going to throw a toy at my face, and called his dad by his first name as he demanded that he “shut up.” 

My interview style changed from the normal “let’s have a fun thirty minutes together” to “let’s see if I can somehow get us through the next ten minutes without the kid having a complete meltdown.” Hah. As I started to tell him a story, he said “Oh, let’s see what stupid, boring story you’re about to tell. I don’t care at all about it.” More than annoyed, I was intrigued by and curious about this small, angry child. I had never seen such a severe case of ODD in person. It honestly felt like I was watching a movie. A character written into a script who was too eccentric to even be believable. I pictured King Joffrey from Game of Thrones– yep, that was who I was interviewing. 

Things escalated as the boy no longer only got mad if I talked to him, but he became furious when I spoke to his mother. He started yelling that she wasn’t allowed to speak, calling her names, and saying that he hated her. We ignored him, but he continued his verbal assaults. My heart broke for this mom, so clearly scarred from years of verbal abuse by her son. 

I’m not sure what set him off, but finally the boy decided he had had enough of his mom even though he had barely let her speak at all. He got up, ran across the room, and grabbed her hair and shoulders with a surprising amount of strength and violence. He was grunting and making animalistic noises as he put a large chunk of her brown hair into his mouth. The dad, now bear hugging the boy from behind, struggled to break his son’s grip on his mom. 

Finally and unexpectedly, the boy let go and turned around to walk back to his seat. Just as I was about to suggest we end the meeting, he turned back around and began attacking his mom again. This time, dad wasn’t quick enough. The boy grabbed another fistful of his mom’s hair and ripped it out of her head. Tears silently fell down her cheeks, she didn’t make a sound. She reminded me of a wounded animal, abused for so long that she no longer needed to cry out in pain or desperation, it wasn’t going to matter anyway. 

I told the family that I was going to leave the room in case I was an added trigger for him. I told the boy he could leave, he didn’t need to be here and he was free to go. He still had a wild look in his eye but he dropped the clump of hair into his mom’s hand who carefully tucked it into her purse. She tucked it into her purse! She tucked a clump of her hair into her purse because her ten-year old son just attacked her and ripped it out of her head. She tucked her hair into her purse the same way I would tuck a letter to be mailed, a wallet, or a favorite book into my purse. 

As soon as they left, I had two main thoughts:

  1. What in the world just happened? How sad. How devastating. How scary. How can you have a child like that? What do you do with that kid? How can you LOVE a child like that? While rhetorical, a voice inside my head answered, “you don’t.”
  2. The mom, she lied to me in a desperate attempt to get her son enrolled into our program. This all could have been avoided. 

A requirement of joining our program is that the child has not had any physical violence in the last six months, and during our phone interview which precedes the in-person visit, the mom told me that he has had no violence or aggression in the past six months. As she left my office that day, now crying harder than before and shaking all over, she said “He always does this to me, he always does this to me.” 

I can’t imagine the level of sadness and agony that must accompany having a child like that. A child who, I believe, would kill you if he had the chance and the means. 

It was a strange day, but maybe even stranger is how it affected me. I don’t know if it’s a result of working with kids who have a lot of meltdowns (all nonviolent and non-physical), but I didn’t quite recognize myself in dealing with the situation. The more violent and angry the kid got, the calmer I became. After the family left, I comforted my two upset employees and took them out for pizza to debrief about what had just happened. Later, when asked by my boss, “are you OK?” I answered honestly with, “Yeah, I’m actually fine.”

And I was. And I still am. My husband, when talking about what happened two days later, suggested that I was probably still in shock and hadn’t yet processed what happened. But, I know that’s not the case. I’ve processed it, I know that it was a little scary and the most violent human attack I’ve actually ever seen in person, but I don’t feel upset by it. I feel so emotionally sound that I started wondering, “What is wrong with me? Why hasn’t this affected me more?” 

But maybe the thing has happened to me that I never thought would happen. Maybe I have finally built up the disconnect and compartmentalization that is needed when you work in the human services field. It’s why doctors and nurses can handle trauma and death all day, therapists can talk to child molestors, social workers can remove a child from an abusive home, and they can all go home at the end of the day not completely ruined inside. 

Two years ago when I started this job, I felt like I was barely holding it together some days. Even a child crying because of a bully at school or a parent crying to me because of their child having no friends went home with me at night. Day after day, the stories built up and they felt incredibly overwhelming– so much so that I had to seek the help of a professional to learn how to deal with the sadness and heartbreak I witnessed on a daily basis. “Why are people so awful to one another?” I would ask myself as I put back together the pieces of another sweet teenager with high functioning autism who had to drop out of school because of being bullied so badly. 

Fast forward two years and I can literally watch a ten-year old rip his mom’s hair out while growling like an animal and easily go out for pizza and teach two classes afterward. I never thought I’d get here, I never thought I wanted to get here. I fully recognize that it makes me better at my job if I can be in the midst of chaos and remain calm and objective, but was I processing it the way I should be? 

For a few days I was worried about this level of compartmentalization and disconnect I apparently possessed. Is this OK? Is there something wrong with me that I don’t feel disturbed or deeply upset, but instead am even more fascinated with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and want to research it in my spare time? Will this disconnect transfer into my personal life and I’ll no longer feel the overwhelming empathy I am so used to feeling for others? While sometimes burdening, I love that part of myself.

The next day, I watched two of the kids in my class have the most beautiful, genuine interaction. A boy who came to me a year ago full of anger, selfishness, and insecurity walked up to a new girl in the group and said, “Welcome! You’re going to love it here. I’ll help you figure out how things go, it’s OK to be nervous, but know that we are all happy you’re here and you’re going to make some good friends.” The girl, who had no friends according to her parents, cracked a smile and I had to turn my head so they wouldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes. 

These kiddos. These sweet, precious, persistent, brave, beautiful kiddos. Thanks for showing me that the tears are still there– they’re just being saved up for the tiny moments that others may see as insignificant, but I’ll remember forever. These are the emotions I want to take home with me at the end of the day, these are the ones I’ll never be able to disconnect from, thankfully. 

ALMOST ANONYMOUS

It is with excitement and a twinge of sadness that I write this first post on this fresh, new blog.

I love the idea of starting something new, but there remains the feeling that I’m abandoning my child. I’m leaving her behind without explanation. Will she know that I still love her? Will she know that she helped me grow, she helped me express, she helped me become? There were days I went to her with tears streaming down my face, not knowing where else to go. There were days I turned to her filled with so much elation, my fingertips exploded onto the keyboard and my soul spilled onto the screen. The life changing events, the miniscule moments, and everything in between– she accepted all of them without judgment or question. I’ll still check in on her, I’ll reminisce and relive and remember. But maybe we’ve done all the growing we can do together, maybe it’s time for something new.

If you are a follower of my previous blog, you probably noticed that I used to write a lot, almost every day. Now, the ‘ol girl is lucky to see one post every six months. I have missed writing. Somewhere between being freshly pressed, gaining thousands of followers, getting published on platforms that gave me worldwide exposure, and even some death threats from kind strangers, I stopped being able to write freely. I have started countless posts only to delete them or mark them “save for later”, knowing that later probably meant never. I kept telling myself that none of those things mattered, I could continue writing and sharing my opinions, stories, and lessons learned and it didn’t matter who was reading it, nothing had changed.

But things did change. I believe in a strong separation between church and state and also a separation between professional human and personal blogger. On my old blog, these two became intertwined in a way that made it impossible for me to rant, rave, and express freely. Knowing the parents of my students and others who only know me professionally would receive an email notification every time I posted on my blog put a serious block on my creativity, a dam in the river, a cork in the wine bottle, etc, etc. 

So, that’s why this brand new fresh out of the box first post is titled “almost anonymous.” My friends, family, loved ones, longtime old blog followers will know it’s me…it’s still very much me. But this is my new space. My tiny place to call my own on the interwebs where I’ll be able to write freely, and almost anonymously.