Help for the Helpers

I read a book* recently about how community helpers are susceptible to vicarious (meaning, indirect) trauma due to being in close proximity to others trauma and mental health needs for an extended period of time. Completely rocked my way of thinking about my job as a therapist and the importance of a helper receiving adequate support.

My ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score is 2 (Find out more about this scale at https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html). Other than grief/loss through divorce and familial death and growing up in a culture of racial microaggressions and systemic racism, I consider myself one of the lucky ones when it comes to Trauma.

So, what does it mean when I find myself wanting to avoid my clients, when I battle anxiety and irritability on a daily basis, or experience a steady decline in passion and purpose connected with my role as a therapist/healer…especially since there are no other personal traumas to correlate to my symptoms? It could mean that I’m experiencing compassion fatigue, better known as vicarious trauma or secondary traumatization.

I completed an informal poll on social media recently, asking those who consider themselves “helpers”, what they needed most. The answers varied, but I did notice a pattern: the themes of “rest”, “support”, and “increased resources to do my job effectively” tended to show up more often. Research I’ve found correlated these deficits with the likelihood of helpers experiencing vicarious trauma.

Working in community mental health is especially draining/challenging. The expectations often focus on maximizing quantity of services provided, rather than providing adequate training and daily support to provide quality services. “How can we get the most out of our helpers?” rather than “How can we inspire the best within our helpers?” is often the agenda. We are encouraged to be more fiscally minded in order to strategize service to a maximum amount of people. But, what I’ve found is that this often does a disservice to clients in need, essentially, due to high employee turnover (overworked employees do not stay at the same agency and clients may have an average of 2-3 different people performing the same role), and high levels of absenteeism (because helpers are sick more often or use more mental health days due to burnout). The culture within these types of agencies cause a deep divide between helpers; a face-off occurs between those who value competitiveness and the bottom line and those who value balance and feeling purposeful over feeling useful. It’s possible that the former will thrive and the latter will silently suffer.

But, this isn’t just about my job. It’s a common occurrence across our entire country; stemming from a struggling system of mental health/human services that is called upon to constantly prove itself. Insurance companies and legal entities look for value in what we offer to people from the gate; often refusing to reimburse providers if persons having never met either therapist or client are not convinced that this treatment is worth the cost. Therapists at private practices are left to become like salesmen before insurance boards; “selling” themselves in order to be credentialed. This trickles down into how supervisors see value in their supervisees within agencies. Those who bill more are automatically seen as more valuable over the employee who bill below average. Again, quantity is preferred over quality.

Meanwhile, the people around us continue to struggle. We see after tragedies, such as school shootings and drug crises that helpers are essential to the thriving of our communities. We are the white blood cells of the community’s body, as it were. But imagine the priorities shifting every few years (or even within each fiscal year), where helpers are never sure if they are truly valued – both within their perspective agencies and from the viewpoints of local, state, and federal governments. We are now in a country where it is more feasible to spend money to arm teachers with weapons, rather than ensuring they have adequate financial support to purchase classroom materials. The priorities are indeed different, and the rate of this shift is unsettling.

So, that leaves me with an inner conundrum; how hard should I work to change the narrative? Where can I find a better sense of balance? And what, if anything, can I do to better assist the helpers that will arrive after me? The ones that desire, albeit naively, to change the world for the better? I believe my burden lies, not just in changing my own situation, but to alter the culture so that future helpers may not struggle so frequently. EAP support (that’s mental health support found with most benefited positions), though typically suggested for helpers with internal struggles, doesn’t seem to help employees shoulder the daily load of helping. There is a problem with work culture.

Then there are our immediate supervisors, who are more overloaded than we are, often provide little or inconsistent encouragement and are left to be our administrative monitors. Even the most well-meaning ones will have an “open door policy” that accepts questions and will give guidance to supervisees that ask, and yet fail to provide a balanced environment of noticing strengths and actively building weaknesses of their employees. We are supported by way of checking off boxes, compliance with paperwork requirements and are monitored so not to steal company time and resources. The term “gatekeeper” has taken on a different meaning, because what it means to supervise a mental health worker has differing priorities. For example, resident counselors are forced to have two different supervisors during residency – one is more administrative and required for your employment at your place of residency and another for guidance with clinical skills. You are lucky if they are one in the same.

I have had the supreme privilege of having amazing licensed/unlicensed therapists, professors, colleagues and peers that have guided me through this road to becoming a better therapist, and I can say without a doubt that it was their impartations that aided me developing my own theoretical orientation, uniqueness, and competencies. From my experience, it is clear where building quality helpers is a high priority and where it is secondary…or even nonexistent.

So, if you have accepted the call to be a helper (I wrote from the perspective of a mental health therapist, but you may be a caregiver for the elderly, a pediatric nurse, or run a community-based non-profit), I encourage you to examine the culture around you. Find resources, programs, and relationships that actively BUILD YOU UP. Ask yourself what/who replenishes you and find a way to make that a priority. Out of many others in our communities, YOU are needed most. And there is a mandate for helpers to be the first to seek health and wholeness. We are all works in progress, of course, but we can show our communities what it means to live out true resiliency.

 

* Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk

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Book Number Two…

My second book, aptly entitled “Letters To My Mother” will be a collection of essays & prose to both chronicle this essential relationship and to provide a heartfelt tribute to my own mother.

Although it feels like I am early in this journey of motherhood, I am often reminded that a woman’s journey (if she desires) actually begins with how she is mothered.

I am simultaneously excited, terrified, & ready.

Keep an eye out for more special announcements and the official release date. 💖💖

Writing for My Life

I’ve spoken with you, dear reader, before about my work with those who are actively suicidal and struggle with self-harm of various forms. I’ve spoken about my one battle with self-mutilation. This post is concerning my bout with self-hatred. Low self-esteem can rear its ugly head in a majority of teens across our world, but for many, it’s so pervasive that a person is abusive towards themselves on a soul level.

I can remember filling multiple college-ruled pages with a single written phrase: “I hate you”. What prompted this? Various things: mistakes, getting yelled at, being rejected by a friend, loneliness. Ruminating this type of inner dialogue caused a death-like atmosphere in my heart. Like I had scorched an entire landscape of fresh, fertile soil with a persistent fire. I felt no good thing deserved to take root in me. I told myself that no good thing could take root in me.

I was a believer in Jesus Christ here. I was a leader among younger teens. I prayed for others to feel the love of God. But inside, I was dead. Aware and in agreement that God’s Love brought life, yet I was still lifeless.

When I arrived at college, I’d been writing for about 6 years. I carried around notebooks full of my words; clutched to my chest. Unbeknownst to me, I was carrying around pages full of seeds. Potential. I had even taken on a pseudonym for my writing role: “I.Am.Spoken.Word.” It was the name I used to identify my desires as a writer. While hiding behind a computer screen, I’d slowly become accustomed to others reading my poetry from the comfort of their dorm rooms. Inside, however, there was disconnect still evident in my heart.

It wasn’t until I started performing/reading that I felt life stir inside. After getting a few on campus open mics under my belt (shout out to my husband for the much needed push), I built a reputation. One particular friend of mine would see me on campus and would declare (without fail) LOUDLY “Speak Life!!!!!”. This went on throughout my entire undergraduate career.

Now, I can look back on this process, and see that where I once used words to speak death and ill will over myself, I now take words to call out life. My words carry the potential to spring up newness where there is stagnation and barrenness. I’m drawn to writing for those who feel cast out, counted out, and broken. Not as the one who provides a silver lining, but the one who can encourage, uplift, and call out our most ingrained sense of resiliency and vulnerability.

I write for my life because I have been given life.

And the beat goes on… *

You know the feeling.

You hear a song for the first time, probably one you’re driven to listen to because it’s by your favorite artist/band. The song is amazing. It’s a great marriage of harmonious melodies, beats, and personally meaningful lyrics. For approximately 2 to 3 minutes, you’re one piece of a musical bond. You wade through the song’s second verse, bridge, and hook; automatically preparing yourself for the ending of the song. You’ve already made up your mind that you’re going to put the song on repeat to enjoy it again. And then it happens…

The singer’s/band’s vocals drop out.

The volume doesn’t fade, but steadies at its current pace.

The instruments spread their wings and soar across your heart, leaving an incredibly warm, resounding feeling behind. It’s as if they were using the song as a mere warm up.

And it’s beautiful.

And surprising.

And nourishing.

Even after the fiftieth time you’ve taken this journey.

It’s like the artist has given you a gift. As if he/she trusts the song’s melody enough to turn away the steady, watchful eye of their voice and allow it to roam and reverberate. The listener undergoes a tiny bit of sadness when approaching the end of a song.

But here, the melody is like a lingering kiss before the goodbye.

I love that feeling. It’s one of the things that I live for in music: when the beat goes on.

Here is a list of my favorite songs that do just that…

  1. Do I Do – Stevie Wonder
  2. Woman – Maroon 5
  3. Papa Was a Rolling Stone – The Temptations
  4. Got to Give It Up – Marvin Gaye
  5. When Everything Is New – Little Brother
  6. Kings and Queens – 30 Seconds to Mars
  7. Waking Up – OneRepublic
  8. Surrender Saved My Life – This Beautiful Republic
  9. Don’t Wait – The Foreign Exchange Feat. Darien Brockington
  10. Red Letters – DC Talk
  11. Dangerous – Michael Jackson
  12. Moment In Life – Musiq Soulchild
  13. Love Stoned/I Think That She Knows – Justin Timberlake
  14. I Keep/Still Here – Jill Scott
  15. Umi Says — Mos Def

 

 

*This post was originally written in 2011.

Let Me Explain…

I don’t want to get into the habit of speaking vaguely about what’s going on in life. I feel it’s in poor taste to flood my social media with my problems, but here…this is truly my domain. Plus, I’m working on finding the balance between full disclosure and full responsibility for my words. I want to be a speaker of life and not just a venter of life. On a more exciting, but related, note I’ve figured out the topic of my next book, and I will definitely need this balance. (Trust me. You’ll see.)

So.

In the past 4 months, things have not only been confusing…but also disappointing.

— went from two working vehicles to no working vehicles

— went from sleeping normally to getting 1-3 hours a night (and not because of my kids)

— went from having an opportunity to fulfill a dream to teach on the collegiate level to not being able to

— seeing the possibility of only having to work 1 job, but now still needing to keep up with 2 jobs (technically 3)

— went from having a secure place to stay to being told we had to move in 2-3 months

— on the continual pursuit of my LPC credential to being stuck in residency because I cannot afford to register for/take the exam

— being convinced of the possibility to be homeowners, only to have that opportunity removed

I know these things aren’t as dire as sickness or homelessness, but these things all happened within the same 3 month span. My head is still spinning. I am absolutely fine most days, but then I have a brief relapse of disappointment, anger, and sadness. I trust that things will work out, because they always do and I have been in much worse circumstances.

But, this post is simply to explain that I am actively working on things beneath the surface. I laugh and encourage. Seek to be loving and inspirational. But this post is to explain that a lot of what I write comes from a place that does not have everything figured out. And many times I will write or post something encouraging because I am in need of convincing myself. I know there is life in words and I believe that I am just as much a recipient as anyone else.

I cry, curse,  and doubt like anyone else.

And oh, this past season has had much of these things.

I don’t really have a silver lining today, only to ask that you, reader, will join me in the “continuing on” part. Continue on with me and make a decision today to not stay postured in the hard stuff.

Anxiety Manifested

I still remember getting my first pimple. It was on the right side of my forehead; large, painful, and it left a scar behind. The whole experience was traumatizing.

I had barely begun unpacking the concept of a self-image when this tiny protuberance manifested itself on to my face. And despite how normal I saw it was to be in middle school and have acne, it made me want to hide in a shell that I’d only emerged from 2 seconds earlier.  I was already naturally self-conscious, being a teen, but somehow I felt that my apprehension was more severe. I always wanted to hide myself and being around my peers made my chest literally hurt.

I was labeled as “shy”, but no one knew the chaos that was going on inside my head. It was odd, I wasn’t severely bullied; rather often ignored. But I knew that since I wasn’t particularly known for being pretty, or funny, or really smart, or talented in sports or cosmetics, that I’d better not speak up to draw ANY sort of attention. Because the roast that would ensue would be unparalleled. I felt trapped by the looming possibility that I would indefinitely embarrass myself, so I trapped myself in the social purgatory that I dwelled in until about 11th grade.

That sort of anxiety never let up, and the energy I collected needed to be funneled somewhere. So, I took to self-mutilation. No, I didn’t cut or burn myself. Rather, I picked at my acne profusely. It gave me relief when I scarred myself in this way. I used to wear my bangs/hair in my face to cover the scabs on my forehead, and I remember my mom scolding me whenever she caught me in the act.

Eventually, by the time I started sophomore year of college, the scars on my cheeks and forehead were slowly starting to fade.1923330_520938837788_8251_n

Fast forward 10-11 years. My fight with anxiety has led to many victories and set-backs. But the battles became tougher & scarier. It wasn’t my social life/self-esteem that I was fighting over, but now I fought to trust God with the lives of my children, my finances, and my marriage. The stakes are much higher now. Sometimes I am victorious! But I have not won them all.

IMG_7390

I took this photo today.

I got a little “smarter” regarding how I allowed my fight with anxiety to manifest itself. Instead of picking at my forehead and face, it’s shifted to underneath my chin. These scars are older, I am happy to report, but I recently disclosed to a client of mine that the fight doesn’t just go away because you undergo treatment for a mental illness/condition.

You become more armed to engage in the fight. And you aren’t as afraid to share your scars. I see these marks every time I look into the mirror, but rather than feeling ashamed, I feel empowered.

Empowered to continue to fight and to be victorious.

…And It’s Okay

If we’re going to use the technical definition, I haven’t been popular at any point of my life. I have just the right amount of social awkwardness & introversion that I’m forever stuck in the outskirts of every social group I’ve ever been in. Moments that I have the spotlight snatched by the throat are brief. I think I prefer it that way….

But spending lots of time on the outer circle gives you plenty of time to think and observe. I’ve been considering the following:

1. Social Insecurity isn’t just a struggle among teenagers.

We all remember what it was like spending every waking moment thinking about how to climb the social ladder as a teen. At least I did. We all had this inner longing to be accepted, but settled for a sense of belonging. It may come down to semantics, because they do hinge on one another.

Sadly, many of us realized that belonging comes at an unjust price. It’s a familiar ghost that often follows us into adulthood. Even for the most secure of us. We are faced with the occasional decision of whether we are going to be ourselves or fit in.

2. Pettiness stops being funny/admirable when you hit 30.

I remember when I stopped laughing hard at my “petty friends”. Granted, the #thanksgivingclapbacks are pretty brilliant.

3. The older you get, the harder it is to maintain relationships like you did in college.

I remember talking to my friends in between classes everyday. Going out every Friday and Saturday. Sitting with each other at church services. The only things usually standing between me and my social life were massive papers and part-time jobs. Now…I not only have a husband and two kids, but (technically) 3 jobs, a nonprofit, and a host of monthly volunteer opportunities. Life has never been this busy. I would love to keep up the same level of social life as before, but I’m confused that I will still get “You prioritize what you care about” shade. Sometimes I end up falling asleep before I can text my friends back, if I can be honest. My closest friends either 1)Are just as busy and/or 2)Understand that I’m busy and love me anyway.

4. I have some pretty driven, dynamic, gifted friends.

Okay, this one is more of bragging moment rather than a mere observation. If you simply followed my friends on their social media, you’d see that I’m connected with undiscovered artists, dancers, writers, musicians, orators, entrepreneurs, helpers, philanthropists, and dynamic personalities. Having them in my life and witnessing their visions to change the world unfold gives me hope.

I’m super okay with being on the outskirts because of the view I have.