When Therapists Attack: Self-Care Fails on the Road to Implosion

Within the past few days, it’s become abundantly clear to me that too many transitions and too many stressors, combined with an inability to engage my deepest self-care strategies, led to some, shall we say, unbalanced behavior.

Really, it was the kind of week where having to tolerate even the smell of flavored coffee, much less the existence of it preventing access to real coffee, was essentially the second-to-last straw in a minor blowout.

It wasn’t until after having about five-and-a-half hours of dead-to-the-world sleep, with no pressing concerns to address on waking, that it began to dawn on me just how skewed I had become, and what the sources of the real stress were.  That is, I can cope with flavored coffee (it’s existence, not me consuming it–yuck!) when I’m actually able to process the big, looming weirdness and stress that comes with the fields I work in.

Even now, as I’m trying to write this, I’m “fixing” other things rather than fully committing to exploring the issue.  I started off by repairing a latch on a coffee container, and then moved to cleaning out the battery compartment of a remote control (a battery had leaked inside of it earlier in the week).  I then rapid-wrote multiple pages of another potential blog post.  So, really, when things are big and disturbing, I engage my rather developed ability to avoid directly addressing or processing things.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten to the point of being able to engage the big guns among my stress-reducers—those that allow near-complete disengagement from the stress—the re-set button to problem solving.  Although, come to think of it, I could probably do that now.

[Right here I wanted to insert a clip of a deleted scene from the movie, Out of Sight, wherein George Clooney and Ving Rhames discuss the joys of taking a hot bath—which would have made sense in the discussion I would have had around said clip, but seeing as I couldn’t find a copy of that clip…anyway, if you know where I can link to it, let me know.]

Still, writing falls into the category of de-stressors—which is another thing that should have been an obvious sign to me that things were off.  That is, I was unable to come up with a single thing to write about until I actually realized what was bothering me (stuff), why (because it was annoying/disturbing), and what I could do about it (nothing, really).  And when I say I was unable to come up with anything to write about, I don’t mean that in a literal sense.  I’ve got plenty of topics.  I just wasn’t connecting with a particular angle or idea long enough to make anything out of any of them.  In fact, I hadn’t even opened a “new” document to get down to work, or scribbled anything in my notebook, or on a scrap of paper that I could reference later.  I just felt dead about the whole concept of writing (aside from pointless Internet political arguments, which are usually one of my most easily identifiable procrastination strategies).

Perhaps the thing most getting in the way of the established stress reduction routine involves changes in my schedule that leave me with less “alone” time, where I am free to do what I want without having to consider the plans of others.  Ultimately, this is a good thing, but in the adjustment phase, a little trickier than I prepared for.

On top of the change in routine, there has been what I’ll call a health concern within the family that is being addressed but is not fully resolved (as if anything ever is).  But we’re in the “looks fine, but let’s just check out one more thing so we can provoke some more anxiety while you wait to see how this turns out” phase.

On the counseling front—people working in the mental health field are bound by ethical codes that make it essentially impossible to openly discuss our jobs, except in very limited ways with very specific people—generally speaking, people who are bound by the same ethical codes.  Over the years, I have developed a way of discussing work with my wife, without really discussing work with my wife, so that I can vomit out all of the really disturbing shit that hits me on a near-daily basis, and move on with life, leaving the clinical concerns where they belong–back in the office.

Because of the way our schedules now synch up, or fail to synch up, there are points in the week where that discharge of emotion and thought that I usually work through with my wife (who patiently allows it without pressing me for details) is not happening in the relatively immediate way that had previously been possible.

So, let’s just say that among the more run-of-the-mill stressors, and in addition to the less run-of-the-mill stressors, something was relayed to me that knocked me sideways, and led me to fixate on [redacted for the purposes of avoiding an ethics violation].

Keep in mind that I routinely speak with people who see suicide as the best possible solution to their problems, and people who have committed heinous acts against other people they should have been protecting.

Despite de-briefing with a colleague who was also aware of the situation, I didn’t realize how much I was carrying the ‘relayed information’ with me when I went on to another work environment—one where flavored coffee has recently become a hazard—one where a malfunctioning printer complicated routine tasks—one where an unusually lively conversational environment led me to (attempt to) stifle many of the extremely dark, sarcastic remarks that are often a part of the purging process that allows many of us who work with disturbing situations to avoid becoming swallowed by that dark void of unholy despair.

Laugh and the devil laughs with you.  Cry and the devil knows he bested you.  Make a sick enough joke, and the devil realizes you’re not worth the trouble (although such jokes should only be made in the company of people who are involved in the same dark field as you, and who understand the devil the joke is aimed at).

At any rate, the stressors of the job with the on-the-fritz printer and the flavored coffee and the enthusiastic conversations, and an inability to productively address some of the simple, usually fixable things that were happening, led to what can only be described as an overreaction on my part to a co-worker asking me to take on something which I felt was not, and should not be, in any way, my responsibility.  Even worse (in terms of sparking my overreaction), the thing I was being asked to address would not have been an issue if the previously aforementioned unusually lively conversational environment hadn’t led to something of a shirking of normal, simple responsibilities.

Now that I’ve done some explaining, although not justifying, of my overreaction, let me say that one of the great things about working with other counselors, which can also be a terrible annoyance about working with them, is that in situations where people are distressed in some fashion or another, they will, first of all, tend toward the supportive, and second of all, tend toward calling one on one’s bullshit—of course, in a supportive fashion.  Wait, I think I left out the potentially annoying part—which involves the voicing of exploratory questions about why one might have behaved in a particular way.  Note that this is only annoying when one does not want to have to, say, be held accountable for one’s behavior and would prefer to just be left alone in one’s asshole-ishness.

I will say I was particularly fortunate to have worked that night with a colleague who frequently has a different take on things than I do, but whom I also feel has extremely sound clinical judgment.  And while I won’t say she identified the specifics of what was going on with me—at least not in one concise interpretation (and to be fair, I had not shared with her a great deal of what was going on in my little world)—she did indirectly prod me to recognize the vast number of adjustments I’ve been making of late, and how much I’ve been minimizing their impact on me.  She also gently kept me accountable to the concrete reality that my overreaction was in no way necessary, and was also damaging not only to the target of my overreaction, but to me as well (most notably because I spent the rest of the night obsessing about it and why I let it happen in the first place).

I was also fortunate to have another colleague remind me that I love my co-workers and have a lot of fun at work, despite the stressful nature of the job.

Looking back a few days later, it should have been obvious to me that I was carrying a big burden regarding the ‘relayed information’ when I found myself unable to discuss it (in a vague, clinically appropriate way) with the colleague I was working with that night.  I brought it up briefly, but used ethical concerns as a way of dropping the subject—when really what was going on was that talking about it, or trying to process it, was provoking such anxiety in me that I just wasn’t ready/willing to deal with it.

I will just say now that I am extremely grateful to be in constant contact with some great people who are pretty amazing at this work, and who can tolerate my faults, but are also willing to help me do what I can to address those faults in a positive fashion.

Oh, and I would also do well to remember this…

Lake control





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