Dropping Keys, Dropping Letters

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, LMHC, waning ASOTP, reforming soul-eater

An eighth-season episode of The X-Files was built around a “soul-eater”—a person who could draw the disease out from others into his own body, eventually vomiting it out. The concept of the soul eater is based in various forms of folklore involving a range of ideas about curses and cures, and the ability of some to take away those things that most harm or most sustain a person. Unfortunately for this particular soul eater, the demands of those who knew of his powers began to overwhelm his ability to process and expel the disease. He existed in a perpetual state of deformity and misery.

I like the soul eater as a metaphor for the work done by many people in “the healing professions.” In this field, many of us work at building a skill set that allows us to help extract the mental and spiritual toxins in others. Ideally, those receiving help will find a way to vomit out the toxins themselves. Yet, such toxins are in no short supply, and many who are most in need of help thrive on a constant diet of disease coupled with a willingness to let others take on the burdens of that disease. It becomes far too easy for helpers to end up like the suffocating soul eater, awash in the illness of others.

In the professional parlance, we call all that business of being overwhelmed by the problems of others “secondary trauma.” There’s a tendency to assume that, as trained professionals, we are able to recognize and address our own forms of distress. But, like many people in positions of suffering, particularly those who are considered high-functioning, it is entirely too easy to soldier on without addressing our own needs. We know how to address all this, and yet we often don’t, or we often address it in an unhealthy fashion, assuming it will pass in time. We take on more than we can handle, and think nothing of it. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me more convinced I’m strong enough to take it.

Hey--eat any good diseases lately?

Hey–eat any good diseases lately?  The X-Files’ soul eater.

I bring this all up by way of saying that I’m in the midst of a career shift—not out of the helping professions, but into some different channels in the same field.

In particular, last night I dropped off the keys to the office where I’ve been serving as an ASOTP for the last year-and-a-half, at least temporarily distancing myself from a particular portion of the field that I have been involved with for over seven-and-a-half years—the treatment of sex offenders.

The change was forced by way of making a shift in my full-time employment in crisis services. As I write this, I am deliberately allowing myself only some small bit of awareness of the insanity of my professional life over the past several years. Yes, I have been working full time in crisis services, while also working anywhere from zero to ten hours per week with sex offenders. Such arrangements are not unusual in the helping professions—where we are pushed to learn our craft in rigorous, unpaid positions, while also attending school and working a paid job just to stay afloat. The habits of overextension established while in graduate school can extend out into professional life, and feel totally normal, even as we are pushed toward deformity and misery.

Currently in a break from a years-long pattern of toxic soul-eating, and ready engagement with secondary trauma, I realize I’ve become numb to plenty of very bizarre things. Running plethysmography assessments, I can sit through audio scenarios of sexually violent behaviors, paying them as little attention as if they were overplayed Top 40 hits from yesteryear piped over a grocery store or dentist office sound system. I’ve become entirely too comfortable asking people about their masturbation habits, and pressing them when I think they’re lying (only in the course of assessments, of course—well, mostly). Fortunately, I haven’t become so numb that I’ve lost all awareness of the twists and turns of my mind, although I frequently find myself stumbling in otherwise polite conversations when frighteningly dark and vulgar jokes spring to mind—an entirely appropriate coping mechanism in certain circumstances and with particular people—but definitely nothing you want to spring on friends of friends who don’t even have the most limited of contexts for understanding where such thoughts could come from.

And all of that was on top of 40-plus hours per week of run-of-the-mill crisis intervention, suicide prevention, utilization management…

So, if I want to mix in some metaphors, I can say I’m now a ronin—a samurai without a master—an ASOTP without a CSOTP—which, really just makes me a guy with an expensive piece of paper that says I’m an ASOTP until next September, but which conveys no real ability to treat any offenders unless and until I take on another master/CSOTP. Weighing the massive number of hours I still have to accrue across assessment, face-to-face treatment, and supervision, in order to get the full credential myself, I think this may be it for my involvement in offender-land.

I’ve dropped off the keys; and, with no further action, the letters, too, will drop—as will the level of…expulsion required of me on a regular basis. Sure, I’ll still do what I can to draw out various forms of mental/spiritual disease when that is required of m—but hopefully now in more manageable, fun-sized portions.

 

 

Advertisements

Happy Birthday to Me II: Contemplate This on the Cake of Woe

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Fashion Icon

(for part one, click here https://respecttheblankie.com/2013/09/20/happy-birthday-to-me/ )

Check out this picture:

It's 1971--do you know where your emotions are?

It’s 1971–do you know where your emotions are?

Pretty amazing, right?

No, no, I don’t mean the fetching haircut accentuating the perfect, potato-esqe shape of my head. That haircut was a dad special a la 1971—the hairdo all of my brothers and I had by dad’s decree. I’m thinking a “1” setting on the clipper.   Quick and easy, nice and tidy.

And, no, I’m not talking about the fashion, although I am pretty damn suave in that dual-layer, v-neck with mock-turtleneck, combo. Or, more accurately, I guess that would be a mock-mock-turtleneck, given that it’s not even a real mock turtleneck, but just the neck and a little bit of the chest of a mock-turtleneck sewn into a shirt. The dead giveaway is that the striped part of the outfit is short-sleeved, and who ever heard of a short-sleeved mock-turtleneck? Right? The dove-gray slacks perfectly compliment the olive stripes sandwiched between the ocean blue stripes that match the mock-mock-turtleneck.*  Still, I’m thinking that this getup would definitely make it into a top ten list of my all-time most fashionable outfits, such is the limited ability I have to dress myself.

No, I’m not even talking about the gift, proudly displayed—that Fisher Price Little People airplane—the red winged version. Pure brilliance of design, down to the weird, yellow plastic string tied to the front so it could be pulled along the ground, the pilot, head flipping back and forth, ever vigilant. Of course, the pilot eventually wanted to break free from the tarmac, and I obliged. The plane today (still in a closet of my mother’s home, or perhaps in a box in the “workshop” of my house) is missing the door, and a chunk of one of it’s horizontal stabilizers, courtesy of a few attempts over the years to see if I could get the thing to fly properly. Perhaps such confusion over aerodynamics is tied to why I became a therapist, and my older brothers went into the “hard sciences.”

Anyway, any other guesses as to why the photo is so amazing? The cake? Well, I did reference it in the title of this piece, I suppose. And it is pretty impressive—home-baked, double-layer, chocolate frosting on devil’s food, set atop a shimmering, crystal cake stand, the candles, playfully askew. But, that’s not it, either.

Are you ready for it? The big reveal?

What’s so amazing about this picture is that it was taken, by my mother, one week after my father’s rather unexpected death. That the picture is so normal, that it fits in so perfectly with the small parade of yearly birthday pictures of all of my siblings and me (all featuring the birthday kid, with a cake and a gift, either posed alone or with that year’s cadre of siblings) is what is amazing to me.

My mother managed, seven days after what I assume was the absolute pinnacle of the sadness and distress in her entire life, with that sorrow still hanging heavily over her and the entire family, to make a cake, wrap a gift, and provide me and our family with some small bit of normalcy. I can imagine my mother just realizing that it was her duty to do so, that she signed up to have kids, and, well, that’s what you do when you have kids…you soldier on and keep things as stable as possible even if everything just collapsed right out from under you.

I have always wondered (and I suppose it wouldn’t take all that much to ask, but since mom will be reading this, I’m sure I’ll get an answer of some kind) if that plane was purchased before or after my father’s death…since it wasn’t until after my father’s death that what would be my first plane ride—out of Nebraska, and on to Oregon—would even be a thought. Was it a gift meant to help prepare me for that trip, or was it merely a coincidence? Was I fascinated with planes at the time? Was it just kind of a cool thing my parents thought I would like? Or was I manipulated by television commercials telling me I wanted that plane?

As a bit of an aside, here’s a Fisher Price commercial from 1972, including the plane, and narration by Dick Cavett. The gentle pitch to parents (although the images would definitely grab the attention of children) is rather quaint now, compared to todays ads telling kids that they MUST HAVE THESE TOYS NOW!!

At any rate, one thing I never noticed in this photo until I scanned it and really looked at it earlier this morning—is that the door behind me opens onto my parents’ bedroom—or what had recently become only my mother’s bedroom.   I can clearly see the same bed that my mother still sleeps in through that open door just behind me.

Not long ago, I told my mother that one of my earliest memories was of going into her bedroom (I believe after being told to leave her alone) and finding her lying on her perfectly-made bed, crying. I asked her why she was crying. I don’t recall that she said anything, only reached out to me and put her hand on my arm, which I had rested on top of the bed. Soon thereafter, somebody—a brother? Some other relative? A family friend?—stepped in and ushered me out of the room, closing the door behind us.

In my mind, the setting for this memory always defaults to our house in Oregon, because that is the only house my family lived in that I consciously remember. But seeing that, in this photo, the bed is covered in a white bedspread, just as it always was in our house in Oregon, it is easy to imagine that same scene playing out here, in the Nebraska house, although to ‘block out’ the scene would require flipping certain elements in different directions. I can definitely imagine that the dining room furniture in the photo here would have provided me with some measure of blockage between me and whoever (may have) told me to leave my mother alone, just as the short distance between our dining room and my mother’s bedroom in the Oregon house would have given me that tiny bit of time to do the same. Nebraska in September (probably more likely) or Oregon in November, it makes sense to me either way.

Getting back to the specific elements of the photo, certainly, other mothers have done the same as my mother did, in similar circumstances, just as other mother’s have fallen apart. Certainly, plenty of fathers have also had similar experiences following the loss of a spouse, and the effort to carry on and keep things stable for their children (or of falling apart). But it’s my birthday, and if I want to tell my mom she did an amazing thing—then I get to do that.

So, happy birthday to me, and thanks, mom!

 

*Color matches approximated using Ingrid Sundberg’s “Color Thesaurus” which can be found here: http://www.boredpanda.com/color-thesaurus-char-ingrid-sundberg/ .  If you have suggestions for better labels of the colors in the photo, feel free to submit them in the comments section below.

Dad’s Grave

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Preacher’s Kid

The Summer of 1977 is forever burned into my brain as a collection of hallowed moments experienced while on a cross-country, family car trip in a Pine-Green Chevy Impala Station Wagon: Seeing a lightning storm roll toward St. Louis from the top of the Gateway Arch, enjoying a traditional Chinese wedding banquet in San Francisco, swimming in Lake Michigan, watching “Star Wars” at a theater in Chicago when we were unable to procure tickets to the King Tut exhibit. (As a decades-long fan of the movie, it pains me to note that I nodded off sometime after the scene of R2-D2’s capture, later jarring awake to the battle cry of a Tusken Raider).

There were days-long visits to farms in communities we had lived in before I was old enough to remember, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, play in a rubber raft in a flooded cornfield, and experience the frightening speed of an angry mother pig as a newfound friend and I were made to race it to the fence of its pen after said friend pelted the sow with a dried-out corn cob. There was the morning I inadvertently released the inmates of a henhouse as I made a rather misguided effort to helpfully gather the eggs before breakfast, and the wonder of first experiencing the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” surf anthems from a landlocked farm community in the midwest.

Somewhat more mundane moments have stuck with me as well—attending a Saturday night church service in Sheboygan; staying up late to watch “Sssssss” on TV on a rainy night in Independence, Missouri; settling into the perfect stereo situation in the back seat of the Impala as my brothers played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Agents of Fortune” on the car’s cassette deck—“This ain’t the Garden of Eden,” indeed.

But there was one great disappointment in the whole epic adventure: the trip to my father’s grave in a small town in Nebraska. The victim of a stop-sign-running driver, and the shoddy engineering of the late-60s AMC vehicle he was driving, my father, the local Missouri Synod Lutheran minister, lost his life in the late summer of 1971. I am writing and posting this on the 43rd anniversary of that unhappy day—a day I was too young to remember or properly process—a day that gave birth to the attachment issues referenced in the subtitle of this blog.

Pops at 21...on his way to change the world.

Pops at 21…on his way to change the world.

The occasion, for me, was already lacking the appropriate sense of solemnity, with the shouting from a baseball game just across the road filling the bright, evening air. Things seemed even further amiss as we headed in the direction of…well, what seemed to be nothing.

Where was the towering monument? The magnificent marble Pieta? Or at least a moderately ornate cross?

Being a big fan of horror movies, and fascinated with the ornamentation and mythology of the church, I had built up the idea in my mind that my father’s grave would be marked by something appropriate to his stature as an important religious leader. My ideas were perhaps weirdly informed by my recent reading of Scott Corbett’s “Here Lies the Body”—a story set in a graveyard, and involving a massive grave marker with a statue of a pointing, judgmental angel—not to mention occult symbols scrawled in blood, and a murder mystery. On top of that, to pass the time on the drive from state to state, I had also read and re-read a book of “real life monsters,” which included stories of Vlad Dracula, and Haitian zombification procedures.

So when I saw the flat, drab grave marker, I wouldn’t say my heart exactly sunk, but my 8-year-old mind certainly underwent some shifts in its understanding of the world–shifts I filed away for later examination.

A little over a decade later, when I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” album, and heard the song “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” (about the 1977 suicide of a 15-year-old girl who jumped from the 17th story of a Hollywood hotel with her guitar) which contains the line, “Nebraska never lets you come back home,” that scene of my father’s grave came back to me, despite not having given it much thought at all in the interim.

The passage of time, and hopefully the acquisition of some tiny bit of maturity, led me to reassess the precise meaning of my father’s grave. I realized that that grave marker wasn’t about his importance in the world, or his stature in a small Nebraska town. It was just some sign, marking the place where the material–or perhaps more preciseley, the matter-bound–part of his existence was left. His influence, his importance, extends way beyond that little concrete or stone marker.

My father’s influence in the communities he served extends to this day, in part through the connections my family made in those communities.  His impact, which, combined with the hard work and diligence of my mother, who raised five sons and a daughter in the years after my father’s passing, extends out into the world in myriad ways, through the hard work and community involvement of all of my siblings and their children—all in their own ways striving to make the world a more humane place.

For my own part, struggling to understand my father’s path in life before it was cut short, and trying to find my connection to it, has been a lifelong endeavor. And while I may have, at times, viewed my father and his life in weirdly iconic terms—iconic in the sense of symbols, signs, and signals to the outside world—I now view it as iconic in the sense of legitimate meaning and influence, the ability to impact the world positively by being a decent person…the same sort of influence I can only hope to emulate.

Happy death day, pops!

Requiem for a Snake

My daughter’s pet ball python, Smeagol, died over the weekend. We had no reason to think anything was wrong with him. The last time I observed him for any length of time—Friday, as I was yawning through the long pauses of eliminating a computer virus—he seemed just fine, climbing the ceramic branch/rock fixture in his cage. Sometime between then and Sunday, he vomited up his last meal—a partially-digested black mouse, eaten several days before—and shuffled off this mortal coil, while coiled on the floor of his cage.  I first took notice because he was lying there with his “nose” up under his body, which would have made it extremely difficult for him to breathe—had he still been breathing.

Smeagol was only about ten years old—not all that old for a ball python. And he wasn’t around long enough for me to resolve my mixed feelings about him. To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of snakes. To put it less mildly, they freak me the f*ck out. Constrictors, like Smeagol, don’t raise a panic in me as bad as smaller, squigglier snakes, or, of course, vipers and the like that can cause all manner of swelling, necrosis and more complete death with a single bite. But, still, he was a snake. And for me, that took a lot of getting used to—or not getting used to.

When my wife questioned my dislike of snakes, and more specifically, my queasiness toward our daughter’s pet, I told her that snakes are essentially tubes that crap out of one end, and bite with the other, and that being shat on and bit are not high on my list of favorite things. I didn’t explain to her how, when I saw a snake just out and about, say, in a field or a forest, I would completely lose my mind. She’s only come close to witnessing a subdued version of that once or twice. She still tried to convince me that Smeagol was cute—and he was as far as snakes go. He was pretty, even, with a funky black and brown pattern, a white underbelly, and a face that looked to be smiling.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

We had invited him into our home under the thought of good parents supporting our child’s interests. Back when she was in the fourth grade or so, our daughter got caught up in the idea of having a pet python. I told her if she could save up the money for a snake, I would buy the cage—a large, glass tank, with a screened, slide-out lid—for her birthday. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure she would meet the challenge. Ball pythons are not cheap; and I figured something else would capture her attention before she finished piecing together the money. But cash received as birthday gifts put her over the top of her fundraising goal, and she held me to my promise.

On the night we first brought him home, Smeagol bit my daughter, who admittedly was not exercising any caution whatsoever toward a small, confused animal who had just been stuffed into a box and transported through a cold, November night, to his new and unfamiliar home. I tried to tell her to just put the box in the cage and open it there, to let him come out in his own time. But instead, she set the box on a table, flipped it open, and reached in. Chomp!

Granted, when Smeagol bit anybody, it was more like a nip, designed as a quick warning. But he invariably drew blood with his little, hooked teeth when he did it. It was lightning fast, too, almost impossible to escape once he had a mind to do it. I know of two occasions, aside from his first few minutes in our home, when Smeagol bit my daughter. I also remember him taking a shot at one of our dog’s noses. The dog was just curious and unsure what to make of Smeagol. Smeagol took the dog’s face, with its looming mouth, to be a threat. Both dogs steered clear of him after that—she because she’d been bitten, he because I like to believe he shared my general belief in the benefits of snake avoidance.

Although it’s not good to speak ill of the dead, at times I wondered if Smeagol was perhaps something of a jerk among pythons. But then I figured he had, on average, only committed about one quick bite every two years—not bad considering everything he was put through, including visits to my daughters’ classrooms, and my wife’s classrooms, where he behaved around preschoolers and grade schoolers, even when one or two of them made lunging grabs at his face.

Personally, I never got bit by Smeagol, most likely because I kept my distance, even though, with my daughter spending less and less time at home, it fell to me to take care of most of his feedings and cage cleanings. My wife was the main one to spend time “playing” with Smeagol–letting him roam outside of his cage or drape himself over her shoulders. But, sometime in the last year, he bit my wife as she tried to retrieve him from behind a huge bulletin board that was leaning against a wall. Prior to the wife-biting incident, I had a theory that Smeagol’s likelihood of biting someone was, like with German Shepherds, tied to some sort of fear-sensing mechanism. With that one bite, my theory went out the window, as I knew my wife was the only one who had always approached Smeagol with a complete lack of fear, and a full sense of trust and love. This one bite sharply reduced my wife’s willingness to provide Smeagol with passes outside of his cage.

The need to take him out of his cage, or rather the need to keep him in a cage, or perhaps, the whole situation of pets in cages, had become increasingly troubling for me in the past few years. Part of my growing discomfort had to do with seeing Smeagol, essentially a wild animal who had grown to about four feet long, confined to a glass box, where he seemed to spend a good amount of his time searching for a way to get out. Snakes, as a rule, are pretty darn good at finding ways of getting in or out of wherever they want. So I imagine being trapped in such a way was maddening for him.

Part of my growing discomfort had to do with having dogs who have fairly free rein to go anywhere they want within the house and backyard—something I marvel at from time to time in the sense of, “Wow!  We have some fairly large animals just wandering around our house.”

When I was very young, we had a dog that was on the scene before I was, and who didn’t have much use for me, and vice versa. I never marvelled at her, and rarely even realized she was around.  Seriously, I can barely recall her existence, aside from some vague memories of my siblings’ reactions from around the time she was put down. I also didn’t give much thought to the idea of keeping animals confined to cages. In junior high and high school, well after the dog was gone, I acquired quite a few reptiles and amphibians (no snakes), and occasionally rodents, that were kept in a variety of fish tanks, mostly in my bedroom. Hell, once, with the help of my younger brother and a friend, I even transplanted a (slightly-larger-than-puddle-size) pond’s worth of native Oregon frogs (tiny little creatures) from their home in the suburban wild to a tank in our backyard—never thinking about just how difficult it would be to sustain that little ecosystem as the summer wore on and the heat became unbearable in that glass box. They were tadpoles when we caught them, and monitoring their transformation to frogs was pretty amazing. But we could have just visited the pond repeatedly and gotten the same basic show, all without wiping out the small frog community.

The vast majority of the reptiles and amphibians I collected met with premature deaths, often for reasons unknown, but more often through my own failings. There was a red-eared slider (turtle) who died shortly after I fed him bologna, unaware that turtles cannot physically process fat in their food.

There was the fire-bellied newt who escaped his cage (how a newt climbed out of a fish tank with only a few inches of water in the bottom, and a few flat rocks and a small branch poking out of the water is beyond me). I found the newt several days after his disappearance when I stepped on his dehydrated, crunchy little body, tangled in the shag carpet downstairs by the front window. I can only imagine the adventure he had making his way down the steps.

There was a procession of anoles (small lizards they sell in pet stores as chameleons), one to three at a time, who all caught the same wasting disease, despite thorough cleanings of the cage between inhabitants.

Various other turtles and lizards succumbed to death prematurely, with no real indication that anything was wrong until they woke up dead.

Later, well before my daughter acquired Smeagol, she had a pair of Russian dwarf hamsters—one of which completely consumed the other, except for its pelt. I kid you not.  There were no bones left or anything else aside from a well-preserved fur, in the style of a stripped and cleaned item you would find at an actual furriers. What was left of the devoured hamster would have made an excellent rug for, say, a beetle’s bachelor pad. I’m not sure if the consumed hamster died of natural causes before it was cannibalized, or if the carnivorous hamster just decided he’d had enough of corn and seeds, or maybe had had enough of her roommate’s bad habits.

But enough with the tales of animal woe. At this point, I’m going to make a little pledge in honor of our too-soon-taken Smeagol. I’m done with pets that have to be kept in cages. I don’t want to contribute anymore to the kind of recklessness that involves people boxing up animals in the first place. This is not to say that I think it is inherently wrong to have pets that are kept in cages. I suppose in some cases, it makes life more pleasant and less dodgy for the animals, and hopefully involves children learning some measure of responsibility, and hopefully a great deal of kindness and love. But in my personal weighing of the situation, I’ve made too many dumb mistakes. And I’ve failed to provide adequate levels of life outside the box. I’ve apparently failed to monitor properly for signs of illness, and to make sure I was avoiding harm.

Smeagol deserved a greater measure of freedom than he got. Of course, a ball python could do worse in life than to have a safe, warm home with regular feedings. But a snake native to the East coast of Africa probably could have done much better than to be kept in a glass box in the Northwest corner of the U.S., cared for by someone with a large measure of phobia aimed at him.

So, peace to you, Smeagol. May you pass through the fires of Mordor to the place of white shores and beyond—a far green country, under a swift sunrise.

 

From Seed to Cocktail–In Memoriam

I had just been talking with a co-worker about growing tomatoes, and how I was late planting the tomato seeds I’d gotten at a friend’s funeral back in October, when I found out that that friend’s wife, Jodi, had died.

As usual, I’m struggling with the appropriate response…both virtually and in the real world. I’ve been on her Facebook wall repeatedly, tapping out letters and words that I then delete, feeling confused about just what is the appropriate response in the time immediately following the death of a friend.

After all, Facebook is where you wish “Happy Birthday” to people you rarely, if ever, see face-to-face, right? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with posting an RIP message on somebody’s Facebook wall.   But to honor the person in this case, there’s a need for something other than drive-by (surf-by?) condolences. And, no, I’m not considering this piece to be the adequate response.

The message I kept reworking essentially came down to this…

Jodi had been battling that vicious monster since before I met her, over 12 years ago. She fought with such grace and tenacity that I was sure she would outlive us all. And if the kindness one unleashes in the world, and the reverberations of that kindness, count in the tally of one’s years, then I’m sure she will.

In case there’s any question, the above isn’t one of those bullshit eulogies, like when Richard Nixon died, and suddenly everybody remembered what a great guy he was, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.  Everybody who met Jodi loved Jodi.  And I’m pretty sure that would have held, even if she had been tied to some ridiculous scandal that led to a widespread loss of faith in American democracy.

Jodi was just one of those people who was funny, warm, and fun to be around. She could slap you with a sarcastic comment that made you instantly feel like a part of her family. She seemed to have a bottomless well of good will and giving. She was the kind of person who lived her life, with cancer, better than most of us live our lives in good health.

A friend of mine from college, Jared, had a semi-serious theory that when a person dies, that person’s soul explodes into a whole bunch of little pieces, which blast out into the world, and attach themselves to the souls of all the people who ever loved that person, becoming a part of all of those people. Jared’s evidence for this was that, when his grandfather died, he was suddenly taken with the urge to go out fishing—something that he had never done, but his grandfather had done religiously. Jared described a beautiful, solitary day out on a lake, where all the love he had felt for his grandfather resolved itself into a sense of peace in regard to his grandfather’s passing, and the meaning of his grandfather’s life, and the lives of us all.

Now, I can’t say that I subscribe to Jared’s theory of exploded souls.   But a weirdly similar sense of “exploded soul attachment” hit me shortly after I received the news of Jodi’s passing. Of course, I was knocked off balance. I wondered if I should leave for the rest of the shift, out of concern that I might be overwhelmed with the demands of assisting people through crisis situations. I gave my co-workers a heads up, essentially enlisting their help in ensuring I didn’t make a mess of things.

But instead of the feared distraction and destruction, I felt imbued with a sense of caring and connection with the clients, which is often difficult to engage. That is, as something of a survival technique for the job, it’s necessary to avoid getting caught up in the drama and emotion of the lives of clients, while also being able to convey a sense of empathy. It’s a difficult balancing act to keep an appropriate sense of distance, without disengaging. But all I felt was calm, a sense of presence with the clients that can be difficult to maintain while also staying on top of the other elements of the job.

Supposing for a minute that the theory of exploding souls is true, my piece of Jodi’s soul manifested itself in the feelings of calmness I experienced—an ability to connect and remain in the moment. Even my exchanges with clients I have spoken to hundreds of times were a bit more ‘in the now.’

I’m going to try to hang onto that little piece of her soul.

And for now, I’m going to get those tomato seeds in their pots, and think on how glad I am to have had the opportunity to craft and share a few lakeside, breakfast Bloody Marys with Jodi.

bloody mary

 

Forced Healing: A “Girls” Beach House Retreat

(Spoiler Alert)

Season Three, Episode Seven of HBO’s Girls finds Marnie securing a North Fork (the vacation destination for people who feel the Hamptons are “tacky”) beach house from a family friend, in an attempt to engage her friends in some never-defined process of “healing”—healing that is supposed to take place over a duck dinner, leaving time for face masks, a viewing of “Queens of Comedy,” and a ceremony built around throwing slips of paper, inscribed with wishes, into a bonfire.

As she hops around in the turbulent surf, insisting it’s “the best swimming conditions imaginable,” while the rest of her friends wait uncomfortably on shore, Marnie observes, “I just think we have a lot of healing to do and we have a lot of ways that we could do it.”

The best swimming conditions imaginable--why isn't anyone joining in?

The best swimming conditions imaginable–why isn’t anyone joining in?

Healing rituals can be very powerful…I guess.  I can’t say as I’ve ever utilized any as part of a therapy or group therapy session.  And, just to be clear, I’m using the phrase “healing ritual” in the broadest way possible—essentially encompassing any kind of activity designed to provide participants with a positive outcome by engaging in some sort of symbolic action.

I have, at times, advocated that people use healing rituals, for example, when grieving.  But in those cases, I’ve suggested an individualized ritual, focused on something that is specific to the mourner’s connection to the deceased.  And such rituals come with the caveat that one cannot simply get over grief by coming up with a clever routine that serves as a reminder of a loved one.  You have to feel the hurt to get to the heal.

Personally, I’ve only ever taken part in one healing ritual, at a church.  That particular ritual involved dropping stones into water, and had something to do with establishing intentions and letting go of bad habits or negative thoughts that trap one in old patterns…or something like that.  While I enjoyed it, and found it to be engaging while it was taking place, it wasn’t something I was particularly invested in, or something that spoke to my own personal needs or expectations at the time.  So it didn’t really stick with me.

I suppose I associate healing rituals, or rituals in general, with religion or spirituality, rather than with therapy.  This is not to say that religion and spirituality are totally separate from therapy—perhaps different sides of the same street…finding meaning in, and ways to deal with, the difficulties of life.

Ritual, though, is imposed on reality.  Ritual says, ‘we are here now, and these are the steps we are going to take to create shared meaning.’  Therapy depends more on meeting people where they are, and taking steps as those steps become possible.  At any rate, for either rituals or therapy to work, they need the ‘buy-in’ of the participants.  If there’s no meaningful connection to the work being done, no personal sense that it is worthwhile, then little is likely to come of it.

Marnie, unfortunately, never gets the buy-in of her friends.  Hannah, Jessa, and Shoshanna come out to the beach house as much out of a strained sense of obligation to Marnie as they do because they’ve been offered a free, weekend getaway.  Hannah soon sabotages Marnie’s tightly-scheduled friendship renewal when, on a trip into town, she runs into past roommate Elijah and a group of his friends.  Inviting them to join Marnie’s restorative retreat, Hannah implores Elijah to, “save me from this hell.”

Strangely enough, the only actual healing that takes place is between specific members of Marnie’s healing retreat and Elijah.  Prior to inviting Elijah over, Hannah and Elijah excitedly reveal how much they miss each other, thus effortlessly mending a pointless rift that started because Elijah had slept with Marnie.  Later, after some icy exchanges, Marnie opens up to Elijah about her break-up with Charlie and about her connection to “Old Man Ray,” because she cannot, in the context of the healing she wants to pursue, reveal to her other friends that she is sleeping with Shoshanna’s ex.  Nor would she want to admit it, as Ray does not fit into the overly-planned, picture-perfect life Marnie envisions for herself.

In addition to keeping secrets, as much as Marnie tries to impose control and ritual on the gathering, her friends are not particularly in the mood for structure, ritual, healing, or therapy.  What growth these characters experience is a result of taking steps forward on their own, or being confronted with the consequences of their actions.  At the moment of this particular beach retreat, Jessa is recently out of rehab (where she “learned a lot of great communication games”), Hannah is (relatively) satisfied with her career and her significant other, and Shoshanna is re-evaluating her life, potentially involving splitting from her friends (who she characterizes as “fucking whiny nothings”) permanently.

It clearly is not the time for a ritual based in Marnie’s need for connection, and modeled after a pop-culture version of how women bond with each other (with acknowledgment of the irony that I’m using an extended pop culture reference to explore how and why ritual and therapy may or may not work in particular contexts).

In a shallow, drunken conversation about the impact of their parents on their lives, Hannah tells Marnie that she had been dreading the trip to the beach house, and “would have done anything to not be here.”  Then, to assure Marnie that they are having a valuable exchange, and perhaps in hopes of pre-empting the scheduled dinnertime healing session, Hannah assures Marnie that they are taking part in “one of the most meaningful weekends of the summer.”

Hannah’s dismissive comment speaks to the crux of the problem.  Marnie views the weekend as a reset button on their lives, a way to make things “like old times” and to get back to normal, once and for all.  But everyone else sees it as just a weekend…a break from their real concerns…time out from “normal.”  Their lack of ongoing, meaningful connection to one another has become ordinary and acceptable for everyone but Marnie, who is clinging to a Hollywood ideal of female friendship, particularly given that her Hollywood ideals of marriage and career have completely fallen apart.

Perhaps the problem with ritual as a strategy for healing, then, is that it is often a break, outside of commonplace daily activities, potentially gripping in the moment, but ultimately just a break.  There are few, if any, rituals we engage in that become transformative, except perhaps those rituals that are constants in our lives, practices based in our beliefs.  It is a delightful fantasy to think that we can come together with friends in a carefully orchestrated event that will have life-changing potential.  However, close relationships are a process of careful, ongoing cultivation, just as most things in our lives do not bend to sudden, planned transformation, resulting in perfection, or reclaimed perfection.

As for the Girls, whether the rest of the group is really thinking about how they fit together is up for debate.  None of them, aside from Marnie, seem particularly concerned with making sure they move forward together, developing deep bonds.  As it stands, their bonds seem more circumstantial than intentional.  Although they express concern for one another, Hannah, Jessa, and Shoshanna seem content to pursue their own ends, and let the relationships go where they go, even if that involves completely drifting apart.

When Marnie finally decides to throw down, and try to force the group to engage in whatever ritual it is that she has planned, any thought of such healing has jumped the track, and it becomes more like an impromptu, and leaderless, group therapy session—the kind where problems are brought up, but no resolution is sought.  Grievances are aired, and alliances shift rapidly, but the intent of the participants becomes wounding, not healing.

Shoshanna takes center stage in this process.  Having consumed numerous “North Fork Fizzes” throughout the day, or perhaps simply frustrated enough by the behavior of the people around her to finally demand attention and express herself, she unloads on the group for treating her “like I’m a fucking cab driver…like I am invisible.”  Then, delivering the final blow to Marnie’s healing weekend, Shoshanna tells Marnie, “You are tortured by self-doubt and fear and it is not pleasant to be around.”

In short, Shoshanna indicates that Marnie needs to go get some therapy rather than trying to heal things that were never whole to begin with.

The episode ends with the “girls,” waiting for the bus back to their regular lives, slipping back into the one ritual that did come together over the weekend—a dance routine taught to them by Gerald (with a hard ‘G’).  Not exactly a healing moment, but an indication that things are essentially where they’ve been for a long time—with individuals who occasionally connect as much as their circumstances and personalities allow.