The Old Normal

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Just how the hell does anybody on a regular Monday-to-Friday workweek ever get anything done?  I mean, aside from work work?

For the entire month of November, and the first few weeks of December, I was on a Monday-to-Friday, 8-to-5 schedule. This was only the second time in over 20 years that I had been on such a schedule—the previous time being the training period for a new job, just like the most recent episode of “normalcy” was.

I was commuting at the same time as everybody else (read: taking almost three times as long to get to and from work as the trip should actually take). I was having lunch at the same time as everybody else (god help anyone who only has a half-hour at noon to try and get out to procure some nourishment—thankfully, I only had to do this a few times, and had a full hour for lunch).

I was doing my grocery and other shopping when everyone else was—either on my way home after work, or on the weekends—when the stores are at their peak crowdedness.  Navigating a single aisle at the grocery store, waiting for people to make their decisions and get out of the way, or waiting for them just to notice they were blocking the entire aisle by hanging onto a corner of their angled grocery cart while staring at a wall of spaghetti sauce, was trying.  And forget all of those little errands—running to the post office, for example—the extra-long lunch-hour or Saturday morning lines—uggh!

Everything seemed to take much longer than it should have. Everywhere seemed so much more crowded than it needed to be.

I felt crushed by this tyranny of scheduling normalcy, this chronometrically-imposed and enforced bottlenecking. Just how do people do this, day in and day out? How do they ever get anything done beyond the extra-slow commutes, and the added imposition of everybody else doing the same damn thing at the same damn time—or at least trying to?

Aaaaagh!  I feel like a stretched-out, messed-up face pinned down by a floppy clock!

Aaaaagh! I feel like a stretched-out, messed-up face pinned down by a floppy clock!  Or is that a decapitated, vomiting swan, wearing a fake beard pinned down by a floppy clock?

I forced myself through the daily tasks I absolutely had to complete, and blew off the rest for the weekend, and then blew them off again, as if maybe this next week I wouldn’t feel so tired after spending most of my waking hours devoted to work and the process of getting there and back.

Weekends felt short. By the time I felt rested and started in on that to-do list, the to-do list was necessarily pared down a great deal, with Sunday evening and Monday morning hanging over my head–sending me into to-do list despair.

I suddenly understood the asshole-ish behaviors of driving a bit too fast and recklessly to get that parking spot, the feigned ‘oh-I-didn’t-see-you-and-that’s-why-I-let-that-door-swing-shut-in-your-face-rather-than-chancing-you-getting-ahead-of-me-in-that-long-f***ing-line,’ the impossibly tight closing of the gap between one’s own car and the one just ahead to prevent anyone from merging and making the commute take even nine seconds longer. I suddenly understood these behaviors. I did not engage in these behaviors. It seems it would take years of this ‘regular workday’ harshness before one would be pushed to such extremes.  But I was just a tourist here in normal-land. I knew I would be leaving before long. I didn’t have to act that way.

The particulars of the situation helped me appreciate what I had experienced for so long, in terms of scheduling and work. When my kid was little, I was self-employed, working out of the home. All that time, getting her to and from school was a pleasant walk or a short drive—a little break in the work day.  I could attend to tasks at my own pace, except in the few ‘busy seasons’ when all hell broke loose and I had to hunker down for a few weeks or a month, working every waking minute, except for those quick trips to the school and back.

Later on, when I angled toward jobs in the mental health field that required shift work, it was so much easier to work all night, or in the evenings, and take care of all those other daily tasks when very few others were. There were several periods when I was allowed to knock out 40-hour workweeks in three days, leaving the rest of the week free—or for much of that time, free to go to grad school or work a second job. At any rate, I wasn’t tied to the same schedule as the bulk of the rest of the working world.

I’m now back to a bit of the old normal—a work schedule that helps keep me from needing to move about too much in the peak hours of the work-imposed world. I’m thankfully off of graves—not that I hated that—but it takes a toll, especially when you’re trying to spend some normal day hours with family and friends, and working occasionally at a second job that takes place during the day.  I’m back to having a few weekdays and a weekend day off, a schedule of four tens–and with no second job sapping hours from my days off.

I’m trying to get back to where I can spend my days off getting some stuff done—like writing on a sort-of-regular basis, or getting back to those projects around the house that are perpetually sidetracked or shelved. But I’m also having to undo a number of bad habits and weird practices that still linger after years of being up all night most nights, and sleeping during the day. Hell, I started writing the rough draft of this just before 2 a.m. since I fell asleep early and then couldn’t stay asleep through the night.

Still, the adjustment to the new schedule isn’t nearly as rough as the adjustment to the ‘normal’ world of the rest of the day-walkers. I’m settling in to something of the old normal—awake and working during the days—just not always when the rest of you humans are clogging everything up.

While I enjoyed the training I was doing, it wasn’t really all that fun visiting your overcrowded, poorly scheduled world, and I definitely wouldn’t want to live there.

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.



You Are Here

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Carbon-based being

If any of you pay all that much attention to this blog, then you may have noticed it’s been a little quiet over the last few weeks.

When I look at it objectively, the inactivity here makes plenty of sense. I caught a nasty summer cold at the same time I had a lot of extra work at my second job, along with the usual work at my full-time job, which has been predictably plagued by the summer vacations and seasonal staffing changes, leading to workload strains.

I was also trying to finish some of those summer projects—particularly the pressure-washing and re-coating of the deck. Even in summer, trying to get the weather to cooperate with my days off can be a challenge, not to mention my complete inability to accurately predict how long any project will take me. I’m working on a formula that is something like AT = h x 4 + 36d, where AT = actual time, h = the total number of hours I predict something is going to take, and d = days.

Whatever the equation or excuses, it’s not like I haven’t had plenty to write about. Hell, I’ve even cranked out a thousand-plus words on each of a few posts—a follow-up piece to one I wrote about a conversation I had with my niece; and one on Will Hayden of “Sons of Guns” getting arrested for allegedly raping his daughter repeatedly over the course of two+ years. (Just now, it occurred to me that the way to make those two posts work might be to combine them and dump at least half of what I wrote). When I couldn’t make these newer efforts work out, I tried re-tooling some things I had written earlier that I never liked enough to post. But all of it was turning into disjointed, bland, repetitive…stuff…stuff that I couldn’t quite untangle and reweave to the level I wanted. Trying to make any of it work at all started to feel too much like drudgery and burdensome obligation.

There were other things going on as well—upsetting situations with friends that, although, or perhaps because, I couldn’t do anything about them, were very draining. On top of that I was jumping through hoops to try to get adjustments made to the particulars of a contract, after spending over a month jumping through hoops to get to the point where any contract had been established at all. Expressing an intention to walk away rather than trying to fix anything more turned out to be just the thing to motivate a real resolution. Now why hadn’t I thought of that sooner?

A number of valued co-workers have also been moving on to what I hope are greener pastures for them, pastures that I hope will not become so lush and large that they put us out of contact. Among those who are moving on is a talented, funny, and inspirational artist.  Another who has made the big career shift is an ever-observant thinker who, with a few counselor-ly questions and observations—including pointing out the need to ‘mourn’ or otherwise acknowledge the little losses, such as co-workers moving on—has repeatedly helped me recognize whether I’m actually charting a course, or merely bobbing about in the tides.

Straddling the line of done and undone, looking for the passage to motivation.

Straddling the line of done and undone, looking for the passage to motivation.

I could turn this into a more deliberate post about self-care and minding one’s moods—about paying attention to those signs of situational depression—like pushing too hard and not having enough fun when trying to write one’s blog pieces. But really, getting this out was just about writing something that wasn’t a big struggle to be clever or original or even relevant. It was about scanning the map for that red dot or arrow that says, “You Are Here” so that maybe I could make my way to an exit and head back home.

In truth, none of the points I mentioned above are completely resolved. But at least I decided to go find that big, light-up plexiglass mall-map rather than wandering about looking at things I don’t want or need.  And now that I have some idea of where I’m at, it might be a little easier to get back to where I parked my car…after I hit a restroom.




Not Oriented to Day/Date

by Jonathan C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

In any good vacation, there comes a point where the day and date are completely lost to one’s immediate recall.

I’m not talking about the “I keep thinking it’s Thursday, but it’s only Wednesday,” kind of thing that happens anytime there’s a holiday or some other minor shift in one’s schedule…or that just happens from time to time for no apparent reason. I’m talking about hitting that point where you make the definitive claim, “It is Thursday,” when it is only Wednesday.

On my latest vacation, this happened Saturday night, or, rather, Sunday morning, when, with the wind outside too severe to build a fire and sit out under the stars, I had flopped out in the living room of the rental beach house with my (adult) niece and nephew, to knock back a few, b.s., and flip channels as we half-watched TV. I suggested they could tune in “Saturday Night Live,” then quickly retracted my suggestion, believing I was righting myself by saying it was only Friday night.

My nephew said drily, “Uh, no…it’s Saturday.”

“It’s actually Sunday,” my niece further corrected. Sure enough, we were all of two minutes into Sunday…assuming it really was Sunday.

Since my niece, in charge of the remote at the time, did nothing to confirm that it really was Saturday (like switching the channel to NBC so I could see that a “Saturday Night Live” rerun was really on), and the on-screen programming guide—still up in the realm of NatGeo’s “Drugs, Inc.”—showed the time, but not the day or date, I had to puzzle through the events of the day, and previous days, to try to gain some kind of bearing.

That most patriotic of birds, a seagull, drifts above an American flag, bent in the wind, signaling that all is well…whatever day it is.

That most patriotic of birds, a seagull, drifts above an American flag, bent in the wind, signaling that all is well…whatever day it is.

It should have been obvious enough, as some cousins had stopped by the beach house earlier in the day, and I was well aware that they were expected on Saturday. But that little item escaped my scan of the day’s happenings. Instead, my mind floundered through things like what I had eaten earlier in the day, and what, if anything, occurred while I was out beach-walking. Finding nothing specific enough to give me the proper cues to place myself along a timeline, I counted from the days I left home—leaving me with the conclusion that it absolutely could not have been Friday night/Saturday morning.

Such occurrences give me pause when thinking that people are routinely asked what day/date it is during mental health assessments, say, at a hospital ER or an agency intake appointment, since I realize how easy it is to be thrown off once one is not tied to a schedule. (I get that asking the question is useful for a number of things, like head injuries and anything else likely to disengage somebody from reality and/or memory). But still, a few days of being away from all the appointments, shifts, and events that I am normally tracking, away from the pressure to be anywhere in particular at any time in particular, and I start to lose my grip on just what day it is.  And that can be a very healthy thing.

For the purposes of measuring the usefulness of the question about the day/date, just imagine a person on disability with few regularly scheduled places to be…or someone in assisted living who has other people attending to the details of his schedule…perhaps somebody who has been retired or unemployed for an extended period of time…an individual who has made a serious attempt to kill herself by overdose, still in a haze of medication or illicit street drugs.

Okay, that got a little dark. But there are plenty of reasons someone could become distanced from knowing the day and/or date.

If it weren’t something of a lifelong trait, I might say that my knowledge of such assessment questions informs my tendency, once I get to the point of losing my sense of time, to tilt back into the land of the worried, and start to obsess over how many days of vacation are left, and what still has to be accomplished or avoided between now and the end of the getaway. I soon find myself mentally checking the date in my head several times a day. I pester myself out of living in the now, of enjoying the blissful forgetfulness that can, and really should, tag along on vacation when you’re not required to remember much of anything except maybe how to get back to a rental in a town you’re not familiar with—which I suppose would come under ‘orientation to place and situation.’

Such worrying and failures to maintain forgetfulness are, of course, detrimental to properly sinking into a vacation—to fully resting and restoring oneself. It’s not like the others with you on vacation, or the property owners, are going to let you forget, when the time comes, that you have to leave. Of course, I suppose there’s always the possibility that you own the place where you’re vacationing, you have nowhere else to be, and you have the option of staying as long as you want. I am not yet burdened with such problems involving the absence of obligation or other relevant forms of boundlessness…perhaps one day.

Maybe it’s good to lose that day/date orientation from time to time. Such orientation necessarily serves us when we have to be somewhere or doing something at a specific time—which seems to be an increasing portion of our lives in all of our overbooked-, overscheduled-, overworked-edness, where we are constantly prodded into mild anxiety at the need to know what’s coming next.

But goal-oriented vacations are no vacations at all…at least not for me. Some people like to have vacation plans—places to be, things to see. I most enjoy vacations that involve finding a comfortable place with a nice view, then settling in for plenty of good eats, good drinks, good company, good reading…and whatever else comes about as I occasionally wander from that temporary home base.

With the array of wonderful family and friends who join us, or invite us along on vacations (as in this case), our meals, excursions, and any other interactions become occasions for a great deal of laughter.

And I laughed a lot on this most recent vacation…including the small bit of laughter when, as we pulled away from a roadside coffee drive-through on our way home, my wife asked if it was Monday or Tuesday, then ticked off a quick inventory of items trying to orient herself to the appropriate day and date.

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.


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





Relaxation for Nerds Part One: A Carbon-Thawing-Based Stress Reducer

Ideally, therapy will involve a component of providing clients with new tactics for addressing everyday difficulties. For example, one way to get clients to develop skills in the area of anxiety management is to walk them through a relaxation exercise, maybe even aiding them in creating or recording one that works well for them. While doing my practicum, my supervisor had me create a stress-reduction ‘scenario’ of my own and present it to a very high-anxiety client.

Now, while the relaxation exercise I actually used in session had to do with the client feeling warmth spread through his body, thawing ice/tension in his veins, it actually came to me first as a relaxation exercise that I didn’t dare do. For the original relaxation exercise involved a certain space pirate emerging from a block of carbonite, inside a desert palace (carefully avoiding overly-specific references that might result in cease-and-desist letters from the lawyers of a certain film director who is still apparently cheesed off about those pirated copies of a certain 1978 ‘Life Day’ Holiday Special that frequently pop up on eBay). And, hey, for any of you overly-ambitious types who want to turn this into a full-blown relaxation video production suitable for YouTube, I’ve been told I have a voice that’s made for radio…or was that a face for radio? Both?

Anyway, it goes a little bit like this…

Close your eyes.

(We start with deep breathing, so sit comfortably in an upright position feet flat on the floor, arms resting on your lap or the arms of the chair. Now breathe in slowly through your nose. Take in a deep breath, all the way into the trunk of your body. You want your trunk to expand. You want to breathe from your diaphragm. You want to do some belly breathing. When your diaphragm has expanded with the air to its maximum stretching point, pause for a few seconds, then breathe out through your mouth, slowly and deliberately. Try to make the count of your breath out match the count of your breath in. Do a slow count as you take in air through your nose, expanding your belly…four, five, six, seven. Your breathing is at capacity. Pause, two, three four. Now breathe out…four, five, six, seven. Continue your breathing in this fashion, aware of the feeling of calm it brings.)

Everything is darkness, and silence, and immobility. In fact, you cannot remember the last time you saw daylight, the last time you heard anything other than the faintest, muffled sounds. You cannot remember the last time you were able to move, to stretch. You realize that this lifelessness, along with the negative feelings it brings, the fear and anxiety, are all the result of your inability to move, to experience the world around you. But you still feel your calm, measured breathing. You still feel a sense of hope…a new hope?

You have a vague sensation that you are in an awkward, standing position, as with your hands up in front of your chest. But you cannot move. Still, this realization of frozenness brings awareness, and this awareness brings with it the possibility of movement.

You have the briefest sensation that you are falling, and feel a slight, jarring in the solid material around you. And then all is silence and darkness again, but you feel a change.

As you continue your deliberate, measured breathing, a slow warmth starts to expand near your forehead. The warmth spreads slowly down your face. You feel as though your head is no longer pinned in one place, that you can move it ever-so-slightly. You feel the stiffness begin to fade from your head and neck. Along with the warmth, you begin to take in other sensations. Your eyes are registering light, even if only a little. There is a reddish light to the transformation that is freeing you. The confined space begins to give way to open air.

Another wave of warmth begins in your fingertips and spreads over your hands, up your arms, to your elbows, your biceps. The warmth moving down from your forehead meets the warmth climbing up your arms at your shoulders. You feel the tension melting out of your facial muscles, out of your neck, out of your shoulders, arms, and hands.

The warmth spreads down your chest and your breathing becomes easier, deeper. The warmth envelops your torso, trunk, your hips, your buttocks, your groin, your thighs.

Your senses are still overwhelmed by the chemical changes, and mechanical whirring around you. But soon, smells other than the faint chemical burning start to reach your nose, smells of desert air, of stale but fragrant smoke, exotic fruits, odd beasts.

As the warmth reaches down past your knees, releasing the tension in your calves, your ankles, your feet, you feel a sense of being freed. And you recognize in amongst the smells reaching you, something familiar, intimately familiar. As the tension, and the binding solidness melts away, you feel no fear, even as you realize you begin to fall. For that familiar smell that reaches you is the smell of security, the smell of one who will not let you fall, of one who will catch you, the smell, the words, the touch all grip you at the same time…the smell, and clutch, and declaration of “someone who loves you.”