Saturday, September 19, 2009

Peak Reaction Time

A life of reaction is a life of slavery, intellectually and spiritually. One must fight for a life of action, not reaction.

- Rita Mae Brown

I'm trying to get my timing right. You know how sometimes you think of "the perfect comeback" only like three hours later? Or, you say the absolute wrong thing because you just can't stop yourself because you're mad? That's what I'm talking about - what is the peak reaction time - time enough to think of the right thing to say and timely enough to have the right impact.

I grew up in a large and chaotic family (6 kids in a 10 year span). If we wanted something, we had to grab it and shove the others out of the way. We played together and fought together - sometimes at the same time. My mother had to resort to locking us out of the house for a couple of hours at a time in the summers. I think she probably did that to keep from going crazy. The point is - I learned to speak out and do it quickly. This has turned out to be a good thing and a bad thing in my life.

It is a good thing because I usually don't have any problem saying how I feel or what I think. I especially don't have a problem when I think someone else is being abused or treated poorly. Big surprise I ended up being a social worker who advocates for and works with abused people. I have testified in court lots of times at bond hearings. I am not shy about making my point and giving the judge all the reasons why I think we need to have a high bond or no bond. Recently, there was an incident near the elevators in my building. Someone to our office and told us a man had just assaulted his girlfriend. I went out there and stepped past everyone and told this crying woman who was hunkered down in a little ball to come with me. At the same time, I told the boyfriend to "get back." He did and she came with me. I can do the "take charge in a crisis" thing.

But, here's the part I am working on - the flip side that I open my mouth and say what may be the brutal, honest truth but wasn't the right thing to say. My good friend and experienced social worker, J, tells me she's working on the same thing - that reactionary response. When I think about it, probably the responses that are wrong are more to do with my ego. Sometimes it feels good to make that snappy, clever zinger. And - sometimes it does more harm in the long run.
I do a lot of training - mostly police officers - and I have learned not to react when someone makes a comment I think is just plain wrong. This has taken A LOT of practice. But, I have found that if I don't respond with my first thought (often - WTH?!) but I say something like, "Lets talk about that." or "What do others in the class think about that?" If the comment is really off the hook, usually other people in the class will call out the person. Or, we can explore that concept without shaming that person and maybe, just maybe, I can change his or her mind.
Good therapists know about the power of silence. That's the time when our clients are talking about something and we want to jump in and talk - but we don't. We wait. Or, we say something like, "Can you tell me more about that?" Sometimes we have to simply reflect back - "That sounds like it was hard." Social workers learn about working with clients from a Strengths Perspective - that's when we point out the good things people did - "It sounds even though that was a difficult situation, you handled it well."

Taking a breath in between hearing information and responding also helps. That 5 second delay can make the difference between a harmful response and a helpful one.
And - the big trap these days - electronic communication. It is so easy to just tap-tap-tap out that clever response and hit "send." But, there it is - our responses in writing FOREVER. It is hard to take that back....what I really meant to say was....yeah - what I really meant to say is pretty clear - there in black and white. Ouch.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Un Newsworthy

In seperateness lies the world's great misery, in compassion lies the world's true strength.

- Buddha

I was in court observing a domestic violence homicide case. I had consulted with the prosecutor about this case, but had not worked with the victim's family, so they didn't know who I was.

I often bring my laptop with me when I observe trials. I can work during the downtimes. Real trials are not like on TV. There is a lot of downtime: the lawyers make arguments outside the presence of the jury, the court has to conduct other business, there are breaks, etc.

So, I was working on my laptop during one the downtimes in this trial. The jury stepped out for a short break and the victim's brother turned to me and asked if I was a reporter. (Normally, I introduce myself to the family if I haven't already met them, but I hadn't yet introduced myself.)

It was a profoundly sad moment. The brother, kind of scruffy-looking dressed in jeans and a nice shirt, looked at me hopefully. I really wanted to say, "Why yes, and I have been sent to cover this important case." Of course didn't say that. I told him that I was a social worker who worked at the DA's Office. I told him I wanted to be at the trial, but I also had to keep up with my other work, so I was trying to do both. He laughed and said he understood.

The jury came back and the trial started back up just after we spoke and the next witness started talking about where and how the victim's body was found. The brother put his face in his hands and I put my hand on his back and whispered, "I'm sorry." He nodded briefly, his eyes brimming with tears.

In a smaller place - not Houston - they probably do cover all the domestic violence murder cases. Here in Houston, we have an average of 1 person killed every 10 to 14 days due to domestic violence. There's just too many murders. They are too commonplace to make the news on a regular basis.

I've noticed over the years that the domestic violence homicides only get covered if there is something unusual - like when Timothy Shepherd burned up his girlfriend's body in his bar-b-que grill after he killed her, or when dentist Clara Harris ran over her husband with her Mercedes and killed him.

For our commonplace murders - your regular folk - people who work for UPS, or K-Mart - the SOPs of domestic violence homicides - I suppose we're just too used to these or maybe "this story has already been done." Maybe it is just the same story with different names, the same facts, the same ending - you know - un newsworthy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Public Responsibility

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.
- President Barack Obama

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

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.
- President John F. Kennedy

If someone is having a problem, don't ask them what you can do to help, just do it.
- My Mom


My kids' principal sent out an email last week informing us parents they WOULD NOT be showing President's Obama's address to kids, but said they would record it if anyone were interested. I hesitated (do I want to jump into this thing - well, yes) and then responded back that I would have let my kids see it because the information looks positive. And - what better example of the value of education than from a man who literally overcame several issues we commonly label as " childhood adverse risk factors" to become president of the United States. The principal responded by saying if I wanted to come up to the school, I could watch the speech with my kids. So, I did.

I don't think they actually widely advertised this as an option, so it was my kids, 2 other moms, their 2 kids, and me. We huddled around an old computer in the library. We couldn't get the sound up very high, so we huddled around the speaker. It made me think of the days when people huddled around the radio for the fireside chat.

We couldn't hear very well at all, but we could hear most of it. I poked my kids several times during the speech - especially the parts about not giving up and to keep trying even when it doesn't turn out well. What stuck with me was the quote I've posted above.

This is really the heart of social work training - and Catholic Social Justice teaching - and really, just plain being a good, responsible, and productive citizen.

It is this idea that what we do (or don't know) isn't about just how it impacts us as individuals - but this idea that we have a public responsibility too. As Mother Teresa said - we belong to each other.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Near End of Mother

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
- Mother Teresa

She sat across from me, crying, telling me she just didn't know what to do, just knew she couldn't "live like this" anymore. My 76 year old client wasn't talking about a husband or boyfriend. She was talking about her 49 year old son.

I know when we are about the last stop when a mother comes to our office about a grown child. The scenario is almost always the same: untreated mental health issues, substance abuse, been stealing/cajoling mom for money, turned violent when she wouldn't give in anymore. Mom tries to put up limits, but gives in when her son asks for help. Us mothers can't but see them as 2 year olds holding up their little arms begging to be cuddled. If only we could comfort them now, like we could then.

For all we say about romantic love, and we say a lot, we can always find another partner. Most of my clients are or have been in intimate partner domestic violence relationships. There's always another fish. But, not so for children. No matter how cruel, how bad, how humiliating, a mother's heart forgives. And breaks. And forgives again.

This mom, like my other moms in her situation, doesn't really want a protective order. She doesn't really want him not to be able to come to her home. She just wants the drug-abusing, violent, mean son to stop coming. She wants her sweet little boy back. She wants the never-before-existed successful, happy good son. She is grieving not only the pain her son has caused her, but also for the son who never was.

I tell her that just because her son doesn't have limits, doesn't mean she shouldn't. She isn't being a bad mother because she says "enough." In fact, she could even help him by not making it easy for him. She can't fix this - only he can. She can - and will - love him always.

He either will stop what he's doing or he won't.