Saturday, July 11, 2009

Secrets and Disclosure Remorse

...then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear.
Job 11:15
I met with a woman in her mid-50s who was leaving a 30 year abusive marriage. She was nervous and had trouble making eye contact with me. I suspected she has having difficulty because she told me things she had kept hidden for years and years. This was a professional woman, who raised children, went to church, did all the things many of us do – all the while burying deep inside of her the pain and shame of being abused at home. There had been no police reports in all these years. She had not taken photos of her injuries. There were no shelter, medical or counselor records. All these years, she lived in two worlds – our world and her own 2nd level of hell.
I had worked with many women just like her over the years. Like many of these women, she self-medicated her pain and shame. In addition to hiding the abuse, she was also hiding alcohol dependence. It makes perfect sense. We are not made to live like this. However, we are made to survive.
Part of surviving is our body and brain makes sure we keep going, making adjustments as needed. For instance, if someone is being strangled, they will find that their arms and legs won’t work. That is because the body is taking care of the vital organs – the heart, lungs, renal system, and brain. When we’re exposed to trauma, our body finds a way to adjust. We do that by disconnecting and medicating. Disconnecting allows trauma victims to live in two worlds, as my client was. Disconnecting separates emotions from reality. People who are new to this field are amazed that a domestic violence survivor can look them straight in the eye and tell them the most amazing lies – “no, he isn’t violent…he’s a great dad…I’m the one with the problems…” Self-medication includes both legal and illegal substance use – alcohol, xanax, valium, anti-depressants, marijuana, etc.
Once the crisis is passed for survivors, I strongly encourage them to go to counseling to reconnect and heal. I explain about all the emotions that will resurfance once they are no longer living a day-to-day existence.
This woman wouldn’t talk with me anymore after we met. That isn’t surprising. It is disconcerting to tell these long-hidden shameful secrets. The response is often to have “disclosure remorse” – it was just too scary to open THAT box. But, telling someone is a huge step. Sometimes people start with that and don’t make any other changes for a while. Sometimes they call the police and tell them. By the time we talk to them, the secret is buried once again.
So if someone tells you a secret like this, it is important to recognize how hard it was to tell. That person needs to hear: I’m glad you told me. You’re doing the right thing by talking about it. It wasn’t your fault. There is help when you are ready. You deserve to be in a healthy relationship. You don’t deserve to be abused. I’m so sorry you went through that. You can be safe.
This is a journey, a process. I tell my clients it usually took a while to get to where they are when I meet them. So, it might take a while to get reset. I’m honored to be one of the people who can help them.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Hero Support

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

- Mother Teresa



When I started at my job, there were only four of us workers. Over the years, now we are a staff of 12 and I am the supervisor. I have learned how to do THAT job by trial and error. The most important thing that I have learned is my number 1 job is to support my co-workers. Yes – I did use that word correctly – my “co-workers” not “my staff.” I just don’t like the term “my staff.” I realize there is a power differential. I am the one who has a say in who gets hired, in what the final policies are, in addressing issues when there is a problem. I know that. But, we are working together to meet the directives of our agency, to meet the needs of our clients, and take care of ourselves. And – my part of that is to make sure my co-workers have what they need to do their jobs.
What they need includes a heck of a lot of stuff. What they need includes an effective and safe working environment, proper office tools, continuing education, emotional support, a good salary, kudos, guidance, and sometimes just an ear to listen. They must know that I have their backs – and I do. They have mine as well.
I am so proud to work with all of them. They are all dedicated, smart, and hard-working. We don’t have any slackers at our workplace because the work is so demanding, it isn’t actually possible to slack. We’ve been called the “ER of Social Work." So apt a description has never been made. We are all crisis, all the time.

We meet as a group once per week for about 1 ½ hours. Just us, no prosecutors or other staff members. We really don’t have the time for such a luxury, but I figure we have to make it. If we sit around a table and talk to each other at least once a week, not only do we solve mundane issues (like agreeing on work protocols), we can also solve and prevent the bigger issues. Sometimes we even fight and have been known to cry and pout a time or two. Sometimes we talk about prosecutors we really like, and those we really don’t. Whatever it is, it gets put on the table.
We do a lot of supporting each other and we use a lot of humor. Sometimes when things hit home too much, we just sometimes listen and nod our heads – we’ve all been there.
So – my job as a supervisor – I am truly honored to serve these people. That’s why they aren’t “my-staff.” They are my heroes.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Stuck in Neutral

- C.S. Lewis



Most of my clients are experiencing issues with domestic violence, but sometimes I talk with someone who just has regular marriage problems. I kind of like being in the role of a regular therapist once in a while.
My client was a middle-aged man who came to our office to ask for a protective order – except there wasn’t any domestic violence. Like some folks, he thought a protective order was kind of like the first step in a divorce.
So, since he was there, I talked with him to see if I could at least give in an ear for a bit and steer him in the right direction. The man actually didn’t know what he wanted. He was trying to decide whether to end a twenty-five year marriage with several kids involved. Tough decision.
We talked for a while and I realized that what he wanted was a good marriage. However, based on what he was telling me, that hadn’t been going on for them in a very LONG time. And – based on both of their recent choices, it wasn’t likely to happen.
After we ripped the scab off the never-healing sore that is their marriage he said, “Well, maybe we can just work on things.” Really. OK –I’ll just put it out there. My response: “Wishes and hopes won’t fix anything.” He looked at me very sadly, “I know.” I compared him to the proverbial gerbil spinning around his little wheel and wondering why no matter how fast he runs, the scenery never changes. I challenged him: What are YOU getting out of this relationship now? What can YOU do that is different? He kept talking about all the things she could do to make things better. I kept focusing him back on his choices. And the painful reality: If things are not different, then what? He has to decide.
In the end, I hope I helped him some. I encouraged him to consider going to counseling to get some clarity and insight on his situation. I could tell he was one of those people who thinks counseling is for “crazy” people, so I kept focusing on his kids and saying he could bring them (as they are embroiled no doubt in all the tension and turmoil of the parents). We even looked up some counselors in his area.
I know what it feels like to be stuck. Maybe not exactly like he is. But, sometimes it is easier to stay in the mess that you know, rather than expend the energy and face the fears of the unknown.