Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Felix Fraga Lesson - Can't We Just Try?

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.
- Buddha

When I was in social work graduate school, I had the great fortune and plain dumb luck to serve an internship with legendary social worker Felix Fraga. Felix is well known and admired for his decades-long commitment to public service.

By example, he taught me the most basic tenets of good public service:

Be nice.
Be respectful.
Value other people.
Believe in the good in others.
Leave your ego out of it.
Work hard.
Keep trying.

Felix would have an idea for a project. He would gather us – his staff – around and tell us his idea. We’d think of all the obstacles. He’d listen, not very patiently, but nicely. Then he’d say “Can’t we just try?” It was impossible to tell him no. Who would say we couldn’t at least try? Such a simple request. And, he’d always be so earnest and sincere. So, we’d try. And, most of the time, we were successful. I watched him use his same gentle, persistent, and impossible-to-refuse style on many, many people. He usually achieved his goals, which were never about him, always about doing something for someone else.

His voice and that phrase are part of my primal social work psyche. He’s in my brain, especially when I feel overwhelmed – Can’t we just try? Can’t we just be part of doing something good? Or being better? Or expecting better?

Yes, we can. And, yes, we’ll keep trying.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Grief Work

“Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength.”
- Ovid

“Grief” – even the word sounds so overwhelming. I make my living dealing with grief. Sometimes people ask how my coworkers and I how we can listen to traumatic stories all the time. I guess the short answer is 1) you get used to it, 2) it isn’t sad all the time, and 3) people do get better and it is pretty cool and really an honor to be part of that.

I know this from my own life: I’ve experienced grief. I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed, to be ashamed, to feel small, stupid, and hopeless. And – I know that it didn’t last forever and while it doesn’t define who I am now, it is absolutely part of who I am now. So, in addition to my training, that’s part of what I draw on to work with my clients.

Yes, this is hard. I’m sorry. I wish I could take away your pain. I can’t. But, I can help you work through it. I can support you and remind you of the things you did right, when you only think everything you have done is wrong. I can’t snap my fingers and give you the easy way out, but I can help support you through the hard way. I can get you in touch with other places or ways to get better. I’m not better than you, or smarter, don't have all the answers, just willing to listen and help.

I also know this about grief: You can’t ignore it for too long. We all put grief away sometimes. When it is just too awful, too painful, too big, we might stuff it in a little box behind our hearts. We might try to drown it with some alcohol, or calm it with medicine. It is still there. Waiting. Growing.

We bury it so deeply that we believe the grief just went away. It doesn’t. It won’t. It will come back at the most inconvenient times. It will seep out and damage our relationships with our closest friends and family. Unacknowledged grief turns into anger, bitterness, and even worse, coldness. We all know these people. Maybe we’ve been these people. He’s the man who is quiet and seemingly in control, but you can feel the anger not radiating from him, but seeping out like cold poison gas. He’s the guy who one day explodes and everyone says, “but he was so quiet.”

So, my point: Grief seems impossible, but it isn’t, as long as we realize that at some point, we must face it. A few years ago, worked with a mother whose 10-year son had recently been murdered by her husband. Before I met with her for the first time, I took a breath and had a moment of panic – WHAT can I say or do? I walked in, knowing the words and actions would come. She looked so lost. I did a little introduction – my name, I’m a social worker, so sorry she was here, so sorry about her situation, wanted to see what I could do to help her through this if that was OK…she just looked at me, really through me.
The only thing she wanted was her son. How all of us wished we could have given him back to her. I also knew that she wasn't ready to tell the story about how he died, but she would have to. The thinking part of her knew that he was dead, but the emotional part was still pretending he was "away." As a clinician, I didn't want to force her to embrace the reality of his death all at once. However, I knew she had to for criminal justice reasons.

Well, I thought, let's start where she is, so I asked her if she had a picture of her son. Of course, she did. He was a beautiful child – a sweet bright face, full of life and hope. I told her he looked very sweet. She smiled and said he is - was. She told me how he was a compassionate, insightful boy who always thought of other people. I asked her to tell me more about him. She did. I told her I was also the mother of boys and understood the special love they have for their mothers. That’s how we started. I encouraged her find the strength to testify in the mother's love she has for her son. She did.

When she was done giving her statement, she practically ran out of the building. I don't blame her since she was forced her to tell a story she wasn't ready to verbalize. I hurried alongside her. She needed to get to the open air, away from her son's death. Once outside, we briefly talked. I told her she did the right thing. She used some healthy and not-so-healthy ways to deal with her grief – as do many of us, especially with profound grief. She got through the hardest parts. She’ll never stop aching for her son and asking a million “what-if” questions, but she is doing OK and even finding joy in her life.

People tell me they want their lives to “go back to the way it was” and “to be normal.” I don’t lie, because I know they need to be prepared. I tell them their lives will forever be changed. But, it won’t always hurt this sharply and be so close to the surface; that they can feel better; that it can take a long, long time; that we can’t fix it, but we’ll help as much as we can.

So, last week, I made one of those contacts. I called the brother of a domestic violence murder victim. He told me he was actually writing his sister’s obituary when I called. He sounded calm, but of course, he’s probably just getting through this fresh painful part right now. I told him my name, I’m a social worker, I was sorry, we wanted to help in whatever way we could and explained a little of what would be happening. It was short, but it was a beginning. I didn’t want to overwhelm him, but just let him know we’re here and we’re ready.

Ovid said to “remember this pain, for someday it will be useful to you.” I suppose that is the basis for empathy. So, we try to do that. We draw on our training, especially on the most basic premise of social work - that we start where our client is. We draw on memories of our own pain, and on the pain of others to try and help people to get to the other side of grief – which is hopefully acceptance and some measure of peace. In the process, we are rewarded with the extreme honor of witnessing people move from pain and hopelessness, to comfort and hope.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Om Mani Padme Hum – Buddhist Compassion Mantra

My mother first taught me about compassion. She didn’t say much about it, but she did it, like when she saw an older lady walking on the street and offered her a ride (things were different back then). She winced when she saw prisoners on a chain gang, telling me that it hurt her to see people chained up like that, regardless of why they ended up there. That didn’t stop her from hammering a child predator when she was on a jury, though.

I learned compassion from being brought up Catholic. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it dawned on me when I was in social work graduate school and noticed there sure were a lot of Catholic and Jewish women there. Both religions teach social justice and the duty we all have to each other. Of course, I am NOT saying other religions don’t, it is just really pounded into our heads. Once one of my kids told me that we needed to feed the poor. “OK”, I said. “Where do you think the poor are?” He responded that he didn’t know, but we needed to find them and feed them, good little Catholic boy that he is.

I’ve learned compassion from my clients, especially from them. In my job working with victims and their families, a murder victim’s brother reminded me of it a while back. While on a break during the trial, the brother asked me if the defendant’s family “got somebody like me” to help them. I was stunned - what amazing selfless compassion. His sister was dead, killed by the defendant – and he was concerned because the defendant’s family was also suffering and they needed someone to help guide and support them through the trial.

That simple and beautiful act of compassion by the victim’s brother is truly one of the pinnacle moments I’ll always remember. I would even say it was a “magic moment.” It was one of those times when the world stops spinning for half a second and you realize you just experienced something absolutely remarkable.

I remember witnessing an act of compassion by a prosecutor I admire. The dazed-looking elderly parents of a capital murder defendant wondered into the office seeking information. Who knows how many places they’d been? Their daughter had been charged with murdering her small child. Rather than just dismissing them, this prosecutor brought them into her office and gave them some basic information about the case and told them what to expect as far as the process of how criminal cases proceed. I asked her about it afterwards. She said she felt sorry for them and she was afraid they’d just keep getting bounced around. She was so nice to them and showed them a little practical compassion when they so needed it.

Since we deal with crisis and trauma all the time, sometimes people ask how my co-workers and me how we can do our jobs. I guess I don’t look at it like that. I think of those moments – like with the brother and my co-worker – that make me awed and honored to be a part of all of this.

I’ve learned that compassion isn’t weakness. It isn’t living on the surface, thinking everyone is “nice.” Compassion is hard sometimes because it requires us to look outside ourselves and consider the suffering of others, even if they have done awful things. It requires strength and the ability to face extremely difficult situations. The surprising thing is, ultimately, compassion leads us to contentment, peace, understanding and resolution.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Going Public

“Not guilty.” It was over just like that. He wasn’t guilty, wasn’t responsible for Teresa’s murder, wasn’t responsible for the death of a mother of five. That was it. Everyone can go home.

After a week of trial, “not guilty” is what the jury said. Teresa died four years ago due to a gunshot wound to her head. The defense theory was that it was an accident because Teresa was “mental” and had tried to kill herself. She had been a victim of traumatic sexual abuse as a child and had suffered from various mental problems because of it. She’d made threats to kill herself, and even tried, more than once. She also routinely tried to get help and be happy, the best way she could. She got overwhelmed, but she hadn’t given up.

The defendant, who had a previous conviction for domestic violence against another woman, told several different stories about how Teresa died. Experts testified about inconsistencies in his stories that didn't match the physical evidence. Mental health providers testified about her diagnosis and the defense made a list of all her problems. After a week of testimony, the jury spent about 3 hours deliberating and came back with that verdict.

After the verdict, when everyone got up to walk out, Teresa’s mom just sat there, like she was waiting for a different answer. When she recovered enough to cry – she said she was “going public.” No one had the heart to tell her that “the public” generally doesn’t care about women who die like this. “The public” is used to these stories. It generally isn’t very newsworthy and we rarely see reporters milling about waiting for the latest information on our cases.

A small group of heartbroken, and hopeful, family and friends came to the trial every day. They supported each other and they waited. They heard the prosecutors talk about the evidence and how Teresa was more than a mental illness – she was a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a sister. The defense threw down mental health terms like they were character defects: “She was del-u-sion-al” the defense attorney drawled out. He said she was “psychotic.” At one point during the closing he even said “She was mental.”

It was a hard case, nobody doubted that. The jury did what they were supposed to do – we can’t question them – it is what it is.

Teresa was important – she was loved and valued. Her babies, her mother, her sister, all her family – her friends - will always mourn her and feel they were denied justice.

For Teresa’s sake – – I’m going public. On this little blog that maybe only a few people might read – truly, it is cases like this that make me want to do a better job – and frankly, make me more than a little “mental.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Best Thing I Ever Read About Domestic Violence

This is the best thing I've ever read about domestic violence. See what you think:

by Andrea Dworkin
From the Los Angeles Times
October 8, 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Andrea Dworkin.All rights reserved.

Five days before Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered on June 12, 1994, she called a battered women's shelter in terror that her ex-husband was going to kill her. The jury was not told this, because she couldn't be cross-examined. Guess not. Most of the rest of the evidence of beating and stalking, from 1977 to May, 1994, was also excluded. O.J. Simpson had stalked her not once, as represented to the jury, but over at least a two-year period. Prosecutors had been permitted to introduce seven incidents of stalking, but they chose to admit only one into evidence. The jury, predominantly women, was not responding to the wife-abuse evidence, said observers. In fact, during an interview late last week, one woman juror called the domestic-abuse issue "a waste of time." Polls during the trial confirmed women were indifferent to the beatings Nicole Simpson endured.

I was battered over a four-year period nearly 25 years ago, and am still haunted by fear and flashbacks. As a woman who escaped an assassin husband, I agreed with Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher A. Darden that, in 1989, Nicole Simpson knew someday her husband would kill her. She'd told many people, including her sister, Denise, that he'd kill her and get away with it. In fact, you can take a battered woman's knowledge of her abuser's capacity to inflict harm and evade consequences to the bank.

But five days before Nicole Simpson was murdered, she knew, for sure, she would die. How? Why? Something had happened: a confrontation, a threatening phone call, an unwanted visit, an aggressive act from Simpson directed at her. She told no one, because, after 17 years of torment, she knew there was no one to tell. The police virtually everywhere ignore assault against women by their male intimates, so that any husband can be a brutal cop with tacit state protection; in Los Angeles, the police visited Nicole Simpson's abuser at home as fans.

Remember the video showing Simpson, after the ballet recital, with the Brown family--introduced by the defense to show Simpson's pleasant demeanor. Hours later, Nicole Simpson was dead. In the video, she is as far from Simpson, physically, as she can manage. He does not nod or gesture to her. He kisses her mother, embraces and kisses her sister and bear-hugs her father. They all reciprocate. She must have been the loneliest woman in the world.

What would Nicole Simpson have had to do to be safe? Go underground, change her appearance and identity, get cash without leaving a trail, take her children and run--all within days of her call to the shelter. She would have had to end all communication with family and friends, without explanation, for years, as well as leave her home and everything familiar.

With this abuser's wealth and power, he would have had her hunted down; a dream team of lawyers would have taken her children from her. She would have been the villain--reckless, a slut, reviled for stealing the children of a hero. If his abuse of her is of no consequence now that she's been murdered, how irrelevant would it have been as she, resourceless, tried to make a court and the public understand she needed to run for her life?

Nicole Simpson knew she couldn't prevail, and she didn't try. Instead of running, she did what the therapists said: Be firm, draw a line. So she drew the sort of line they meant. He could come to the recital but not sit with her or go to dinner with her family--a line that was no defense against death. Believing he would kill her, she did what most battered women do: kept up the appearance of normality. There was no equal justice for her, no self-defense she felt entitled to. Society had already left her to die.

On the same day the police who beat Rodney G. King were acquitted in Simi Valley, a white husband who had raped, beaten, and tortured his wife, also white, was acquitted of marital rape in South Carolina. He had kept her tied to a bed for hours, her mouth gagged with adhesive tape. He videotaped a half hour of her ordeal, during which he cut her breasts with a knife. The jury, which saw the videotape, had eight women on it. Asked why they acquitted, they said he needed help. They looked right through the victim. There were no riots afterward.

The governing reality for women of all races is that there is no escape from male violence, because it is inside and outside, intimate and predatory. While race hate has been expressed through forced segregation, woman hate is expressed through forced closeness, which makes punishment swift, easy and sure. In private, women often empathize with one another, across race and class, because their experiences with men are so much the same. But in public, including on juries, women rarely dare. For this reason, no matter how many women are battered--no matter how many football stadiums battered women could fill on any given day--each one is alone.

Surrounded by family, friends and a community of affluent acquaintances, Nicole Simpson was alone. Having turned to police, prosecutors, victim's aid, therapists and a women's shelter, she was still alone. Ronald L. Goldman may have been the only person in 17 years with the courage to try to intervene physically in an attack on her; and he's dead, killed by the same hand that killed her, an expensively gloved, extra-large hand.

Though the legal system has mostly consoled and protected batterers, when a woman is being beaten, it's the batterer who has to be stopped; as Malcolm X used to say, by any means necessary—a principle women, all women, had better learn. A woman has a right to her own bed, a home she can't be thrown out of and for her body not to be ransacked and broken into. She has a right to safe refuge, to expect her family and friends to stop the batterer--by law or force--before she's dead. She has a constitutional right to a gun and a legal right to kill if she believes she's going to be killed. And a batterer's repeated assaults should lawfully be taken as intent to kill.

Everybody's against wife abuse, but who's prepared to stop it?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Stress(less) Tips

Remember this pain, for someday it may be useful to you. - Ovid

Here are some stress tips. I'm sharing them not because I'm some great all-knowing guide, or a Pollyanna - I'm sharing them because I've been there - and learned the hard way, more than once.

Stress(less) List

1. Remember who you love.

2. Remember who loves you.

3. Be grateful (see 1 and 2).

4. If you are religious, pray.

5. If you’re not religious, pray anyway. You never know and it helps to spend a few minutes being quiet.

6. Take care of your body.
a. Eat at least three healthy things each day – fruit, vegis, yogurt, etc.
b. Get sleep.
c. Drink water.
d. If you can’t exercise, at least get up from your desk and walk around once in a while.

7. Be careful about alcohol consumption. It is tempting to have a couple of beers or glasses of wine each day to “wind down.” But, alcohol is a depressant and will only add to your stress.

8. Breathe, purposefully.
a. Your heart rate follows your breath.
b. Your mind follows your breath and your heart rate.
c. Relaxing Breathing – breathe deep – imagine the breath going all the way to your stomach - and count to five as you breath in. Hold your breath for two counts. Let out your breath counting to five. Do this 10 times. You’ll be amazed.

9. If the stress doesn’t go away; if you are feeling low energy, sadness, hopelessness, agitation or anxiety for more than a month; if you can’t sleep, or want to sleep all the time; or gain or lose a bunch of weight - consider seeing a doctor. Excessive and/or prolonged stress can turn into depression – which is a medical condition, which often requires a medical treatment. See for more information.

10. You may have to fix something in your life before it gets better. Which means, you might have to face something painful and it may even take a long time. Don't be afraid of it - sometimes only the hard way is the way to peace.

11. Remember who you are and everyone goes through tough times. You’ve probably done it before and you can do it now. Your life doesn’t have to be defined by whatever you are dealing with. It will get better.