How to Pass the Time when You’re Waiting To Hear That Your Student Is Not Dead…

“I want to die! I want to die!” is not the first thing you want to read in your Monday morning email. Especially when the email was sent at 2:24 am on Saturday, a day you don’t work nor check email. Boundaries are super important in this job, and I make sure to live up to the boundaries that I set with my students. This isn’t the 24/7 crisis work that I used to do, and technically I am not even acting in the counseling capacity for my students, but when I read an email like that my heart skips a beat (or 12).

Because I care a great deal about students, and I also take suicidal ideation seriously.

I know, as a mental health counselor, that there is a difference between wanting to die and wanting to kill myself but without the ability to do a face-to-face assessment I cannot determine the level of threat in this email. And with a student not responding to my response email(s) or phone call, I am left in the emotional lurch.

Tomorrow, at noon, I will put a welfare check out on this student, per the college’s recommendation. But, in the meantime, my heart feels bound up and my normally boundaries-of-steel are crumbling into an almost state of panic.

I’ve never lost a student to suicide. I am frank in my lectures and in my last assessment with the student I am confident they were in a depressed state but had no suicide ideation, let alone any means or plan. I am confident in that. And yet…and yet…that email…and how quickly things can spiral.

In the meantime, while I wait for that return email, or that police knock on their door, I am drinking beer and folding underwear. Because nothing puts the world at ease like sorting panties into sexy and period piles on my coffee table. I have to live this way, one foot in front of the other…focus on the mundane, the real, the things I can control right now.

And wait.

Waiting is the hardest part.

And for those of you that vibe or shake or pray or drum or send good thoughts…you wanna send them my student’s way?

Thanks.

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Face Forward to Go Forward

Carseat Facing Forward

I had used the line before, but it was different this time. I’m not sure why this client clung to me (metaphorically, of course), but sometimes that’s the nature of crisis-work. There becomes a trauma-bond that they feel when you come and see them in the most vulnerable state, and then six weeks later they are crushed when you tell them that they have changed, are stronger, and need to keep moving forward without you. It’s the nature of crisis work, nothing personal, I tell them up-front, but there were those clients who had lots of feelings when it came to that final goodbye.

And so, my Family-Advocate and I, sat in the moldy smelling family room, with her mom and dad and sister and long-time therapist, and we had a final family meeting. And the dad, overwhelming nervous about the prospect of this crisis happening again, asked “what do we do if it happens again. We don’t want to go back,” and I replied:

When you’re driving you look through the windshield. You need to glance in the rear-view mirror to see where you’ve come from, and what might be behind you, but if you stare in the rearview mirror you’ll crash. You have to keep your eyes focused on what’s ahead. The forward journey. Glance back, but keep moving forward.

There was a moment of hush in the room. It wasn’t anything magical, I’d said it a hundred times, and it’s something I believe in, but in that moment it hit the family in a spot that they needed. Even the therapist, who had been working with this young lady for years, and was a long-time therapy supervisor, was stunned. I might have blushed because half the time I think I’m fucking everything up and about 1 step away from being found a fraud.

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I thought of this experience this morning, as I buckled Potamus into the car. We’re a month early, but we turned his car seat around to face forward. His legs had been scrunched for awhile now, and we thought it best. And he was Mr. Nonchalant about the whole thing, clearly based on the picture above. And as I drove I kept catching glimpses of him in the backseat and had to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road. I could state at his wild blonde hair and intense eyes forever. I could get stuck in the nostalgia of the first car trip with him, all 7lbs, bundled up so snugly as we drove home from the hospital. I know that nostalgia, sentiment, memories are good…really good…but I can’t live there, in the past. We move forward, driving off into the sunrise, and work, and daycare, and a new Holiday-Week, and it’s okay.

 

Is Love Enough?

A few years ago I was taking a counseling Ethics class and had to do a paper and presentation on an ethical dilemma. I chose International Adoption, posing some questions like:

  • Adoption…or baby buying?
  • Is it ethical to adopt a child from a different culture than your own?
  • Is Love Enough?

These provocative questions got the class thinking, and discussing, adoption from a different point of view than is traditionally upheld. Each point could be its own entry, but I want to focus on this question about love being enough.

In my time as a crisis counselor, I worked with MANY families who had adopted: domestic infant, international, or from foster-care. And all of the families I met were dealing with some major issue (duh, it was a crisis counseling service), that stemmed back to adoption and adoption trauma…yes…even the families with the children who were healthy white children adopted as infants. While certainly other families had issues, there was something unique about these adoptive families, where they would mention things like, “but I love her, I didn’t realize that this could happen, I took her in, I showed her love.”

I keep thinking about the stories we hear, about Russian adoptees being sent back by their parents after being a handful, or even here, in Washington, so many stories of Ethiopian adoptees being starved and whipped for “bad behavior,” and ending up dead or in foster-care because of the abuse/neglect from their adoptive parents. Certainly those are extreme cases, but even the loving families that I saw, were struggling to make sense of why their child was so fucked up (to use a very non-clinical way of describing it). There was this overwhelming sense of naivete, that because these children were loved, and saved from a life of living with a crack-whore birthmom or in a foreign country (a dominate narrative told in adoption-land), that they would grow up to be okay.

But IS love enough?

For children who were raised in orphanages, who might be struggling with Post-Institutionalization Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, or any type of physical/cognitive delays, is simply loving them going to fix it? Standing from this perspective, the answer is clearly NO! But for some reason, families who desperately want children, who go to such great lengths to obtain these children, still operate under the belief that love is enough. Their love is going to fix everything.

But, who would tell a soldier’s wife that her love is enough to fix her husband’s PTSD from serving 5 tours in Iraq? Nobody I know would. And even, on a less-extreme case, when Potamus is sick, or if he broke a bone, or seemed to be suffering from depression, I cannot imagine simply trying to ‘love’ the pain away…ya know?

These questions were meant to get my fellow counselors thinking about working with families from a new perspective. Because, for so many, the myth of adoption being a miracle, has clouded over the fact that an adopted child is wired differently because of their experience, and simply loving them is not going to fix things…it will help, but there are many other things that need to happen to help the child be successful.

In my crisis work, I was fortunate to be paired with a 67 year old adoptive mother, who “got it” and had lived it, and was able to connect to many of these adoptive parents in a way that I was not. And I was able to connect to these children/teens in a way that other therapists were not. And adoption was discussed (because most often others hadn’t even recognized where the pain/dysfunction was stemming from).

Reflections on 16 months of crisis counseling

I have witnessed a lot in the past 16 months of crisis counseling, and as I sit on my last day, having discharged my last client last night, I feel so much hope in my move forward. But there is also this lingering sense of  heaviness from all that I have witnessed…

I accepted the job, as a Crisis Intervention Specialist, working with youth 3-18 and their families in King County, 24 hours after I learned I was pregnant. So my first 9 months on the job I was pregnant and the 2nd half of the job I was a new mom. While I have been employed there for 16 months, if you take out the maternity leave in the middle, I’ve solidly worked there for 1 year. But 1 year feels like an eternity. There are things I have seen, and witnessed, and felt that are hard to put into words, hard to describe to people who haven’t been there.

Like, how do you explain the feeling of arriving at an apartment, to find a 250 lb naked teenage developmentally delayed (can’t speak or understand language)  girl from a foreign country sitting on the stairs and realizing that she is the client. Naked. And what goes through my mind is, “my schooling did not prepare me for this.” To be body slammed and try to explain to the family through an interpreter how the mental health system works here in America.

How do I explain the smell of a pre-adolescent who hasn’t showered or changed clothes for the past 3 months because she sees a bloody axe wielding woman in the bathtub. How do I explain the condemend house infested with fleas with the family living in the basement? Or the 13 year old who was pregnant and kicked out of her house by her aunt, who said it’d be fine if she just went to live in a shelter. Or the 5 year old who put his mom in a choke-hold while she drives down the freeway. Or the meth-coke-crack-oxy-marijuana-alcohol abusing 15 year old trying to stay sober in a family of addicts.

Or what about the 12 year old prostiting herself because she heard her birthmother did drugs and was on the street and she hoped that maybe she would meet her out there, somewhere, sometime.

I have seen so much, and yet, what I have seen doesn’t compare to how much my family’s have seen. And I am leaving this position changed, in a way that is hard to put into words. Not much scared me before, but now there is very little that I am really afraid of in reaction or relation to teens or their families.