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Think Before You Jump…(into the helping profession, that is)

For all I know, she plugged her nose and took a glorious swan dive right off that bridge.  We crossed under it on the opposite side of the highway just seconds after she fell from above.  My dad swerved our brown and orange Dodge station wagon off the side of the road, screeched to a stop, and jumped out to direct traffic around the action.  I recall my mother turning around and telling the three of us children to ‘not look over there’ but something drew me to the scene.  Like a moth to a flame I couldn’t help but focus my entire attention on this person.  She lied in a contorted pose with a pool of blood collecting quickly around her.  Passersby willing to help swarmed the area and promptly performed checks to see if, by chance, she survived the fall.  Cars and trucks crept slowly past her as my dad frantically ushered them down the highway.  The whole event seemed surreal, yet even as a seven year old child I remember over-analyzing the entirety of the situation.  A person just jumped off a bridge-not accidentally, for fun, or as a victim of a crime-but to end their own life.  “What was wrong with her?” I wondered.  “Was life THAT bad?”  In my juvenile mind, I began to think about her family life.  “Where were her parents?  Did she have children or siblings that would miss her?  Were people mean to her?  Was she upset about something?”  My assessment skills were rudimentary, but my heart hurt for her.

After arriving home that evening, dad sat us down for a chat.  He assured us that this woman simply had ‘special problems’ and that perhaps she suffered from cognitive delays.  It was a great parental attempt at explaining suicide but ever since that day my mind has been churning over the mental health and ‘special problems’ of others.  Perhaps this incident ignited my career in the helping profession or maybe I was just born to work with people.  Was it part of a bigger plan that at such a young age I would experience the various emotions that accompany suicide and the ability to watch it happen simply put my destiny into motion?

If this story is already too much for you, go ahead and click the X in the top right of your screen now.  You’ve been warned.  I’d be lying if I said there aren’t times when I want to “click the X” on my choice to be a therapist.  But the truth is, this is my job every.single.day.  If it’s not stories of suicide, homicide, or psychosis, there are always the stories you hear from the mouths of five year olds about sodomy and sexual abuse.  And as you carry those same children out the door of their abuser’s home with a bag packed for foster care, they are kicking and screaming cries of utter terror as if the separation from their ‘normal’ becomes too painful.  Other very tragic stories litter my subconscious.  People who spent ten minutes in the front yard of their home hosing the brains of their loved one off their clothing after witnessing suicide.  Children who live without food, clothing, or regular bathing.  Children forced to eat their own feces to ‘learn lessons’ about soiling oneself.  Four year olds dropped off at state office with a bag of personal belongings, their social security card, birth certificate, and favorite Elmo tableware because parents chose drugs and alcohol over parenthood.  Worse yet, the deaths of infants whose parents didn’t have the foresight to drop them off in a safe place.  Their deaths will rattle and anger you.  You will wonder what they felt in the last minutes of their lives-especially the violently murdered babies and young children who probably reached their small, trusting arms up to the very person who would snuff the breath out of their lungs.

I occasionally hear the ‘greenies’ (new students to the field of social work or therapy) say they chose this career because they “want to help people.’  I snicker inside because this helping field is not a profession you walk into casually or with hopes to help people.  Their naivety and blindness are refreshing and like them, maybe blindly entering it was truly the best thing for me.  Truthfully, had I known what I’d see, hear, and smell on a daily basis, I would have walked away from the beginning.  And it is that thought that compels me to write the following.

Perhaps you are a recent college graduate armed with a psychology, sociology, or social work degree and very few career options.  Or maybe you’re John Q. Public with limited understanding of the depravity of humanity.  Perhaps you’re just nosey, or a long-time veteran of the helping field.  Either way, hopefully this provides you a glimpse of my daily life in this profession.  THIS is what you may need to consider before you accept your first helper’s position.

1).  The helping profession is not about saving the masses.  Most professionals in this field enter into it to walk alongside someone and rescue them from a bad place in an effort to elevate them onto higher ground.  It sounds pretty.  But on an average day, you won’t really ‘save’ many people.  You end up being the ‘seed planter’ or ‘starfish thrower.’  Sometimes you’ll spend an entire day helping a person who turns around and runs back into the same situation.  Other times, you’ll spend a whole work day on a client and you sleep better at night because they have somewhere comfortable and warm to sleep.  And on rare occasions, you’ll perform one small action that will positively alter the course of a client’s life forever.  This field will chew you up and spit you out if you are only in it to rescue every client or patient you come across…and you’ll burn out within the first year.

2).  Get used to the grey…and I’m not just talking about the hairs that will grow in.  I’m talking about thinking outside the box, using critical thinking skills and deductive reasoning.  Some people really struggle with this concept because they think and behave in absolutes, or black and white.  They believe a person or situation is ‘all bad’ OR ‘all good.’  Well, actually the helping profession is entirely subjective-every single day.  Why?  Because we deal with people and their lives, and we all know how both of those things change rather quickly.  Grey zone thinking will become your best friend and it’s also a great skill to incorporate into your daily personal life.  But if you struggle with wanting answers all the time, you may want to avoid this profession all together.  At times you’ll have to leave things at a question and you’ll need to be comfortable with that.

3).  Secondary trauma can become an unstoppable rebel force.  Some call it vicarious trauma, but it simply means the trauma a professional in this field suffers from hearing, seeing, and performing the profession every day.  There are days when my morning coffee has yet to digest and I’ve already heard stories about how one patient killed someone or how a grown man prefers to have intercourse with children.  There are usually few, if any warning signs for one of those stories that will permanently alter your life.  You think you’re just starting your day and one person, place, or event will completely derail your entire week.  It eventually takes a toll.  You’ll fight back tears one day and your eyes will gloss over the next.  The vicarious trauma must find a way out or it bleeds into your personal life and creates more problems.  If you are really considering this field, just remember there are going to be sights you cannot un-see and stories you can never un-hear.  Find an appropriate outlet for them, make routine deposits of those stories, and do your best to let them go.

4).  You’ll need to retreat to a safe place every evening.  This means two things: find a partner that will listen to your daily drama, and ensure that your home is a sanctuary of peace.  Truth is…you hear things that will make you want to run home and scrub your brain.  It’s not that you can’t handle it.  It’s that you just need that one person to talk about it with.  Helpers know that nothing will make the trauma go away, but having just one person who will listen to the day’s stories is equitable to erasing the writing on a chalkboard so that it can take on more information the next day.  Yeah, there may be some residual evidence lingering around, but the ability to discharge it onto one person makes a world of difference.  Find just one person who will nod their head at your daily recap and say “wow, that sounds upsetting/intriguing/scary/fulfilling.”  Secondly, make your home as stress-free as possible.  Try to keep it organized, clean, and tidy.  Indulge in the small things (bedding, pillows, candles, bath salts, etc.) that promote proper sleep hygiene and take warm showers/baths to settle your mind in the evening.  Give yourself permission to invest in monthly massages, spa days, or individual therapy.

5).  Self-care is a must.  You know the typical rigamarole you hear on the airplane before you take off- “before you put an oxygen mask on your child, put one on yourself first.”  As a parent, that almost seems counterintuitive.  You innately want to save the life of a helpless individual before you would even consider saving your own.  Those of us in the helping profession behave similarly.  The vast majority of folks we serve are perceived as helpless in one way or another.  We will stop at nothing to improve their lives, even if it means sacrificing our day off, time with children/family, or holidays.  Working with people means that you run the chances of having to insert yourself into their lives 24/7.  They will call you in crisis at 3:00am (yes, it’s happened to me), the police will call you to come help them, and patients can be so down on their luck a simple car ride across town helps them immensely.  Helping them is okay, but be sure you practice good boundaries and proper self-care in order to prevent burnout.  You must take time for yourself (yes, just you) to reconnect with what matters.  Know your value and worth to this profession and don’t be afraid to take a day off here and there.

6).  It’s not all sad.  Sure we see and hear some very upsetting things-every day.  There are times when I want to quit and go play with numbers all day instead.  But then there are other days when I get the random email, text, or phone call from a patient saying the words, “you changed my life” or “our grandson is alive because of your persistence.”  I’ve attended graduations, sporting events, and adoptions of clients/patients who may not have had those experiences without my involvement.  Celebrate the happy times-they come few and far between!

7).  Full moons will likely govern your professional life.  We don’t really know what causes it, but wild things just seem to happen when there’s a full moon.  Hospitals see more babies born, more psychiatric inpatient admissions, and a pervasive feeling of silliness endures.  Don’t bother with trying to understand it.  Learn to embrace it and plan to resist the urge to call in sick on the days following appearances of full moons in the night sky.  Your coworkers will like you more.

8).  Avoid working in the public sector.  Had it not been for twelve long years working in state government social work, I’d have no experience under my belt.  Most of those years were good-the perfect springboard for any career in the helping profession.  However, if you insist upon shopping for a position in a local or state government job, you should know a few things.  First, they are generally more interested in pushing paper than helping people.  Second, workers who challenge the status quo are not welcomed there.  Third, you’ll work for pennies on the dollar as compared to the private sector.  Most often you’ll be underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated.  I could go on and on about this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

9).  Working on holidays, weekends, overnights, and evenings is highly likely.  Unfortunately, drama and trauma arise 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  We deal with people’s lives in a very intimate way and they need help in very desperate ways-at all hours of the day.  Working in this field for me has meant leaving my house after opening Christmas presents with my kids to head into a hospital and remove someone’s baby from their custody.  It’s also afforded me the opportunity to spend entire weekends second-guessing my decisions throughout the week before.  I guess it could be easier said that in this profession, you are always working if you allow it to happen as such.  Learn how to shut off your mind as soon as you leave the office and only work the hours for which you are paid.

10).  Beware of compassion fatigue.  Compassion fatigue has been referred to as the ‘cost for caring for others.’  It will probably look differently for every individual in this profession, but at some point (and probably on a monthly basis) you may begin to experience exhaustion with mental health issues.  In his article prepared for workshops in the helping profession, Francoise Mathieu, M.Ed. (2007), says compassion fatigue is the result of “increasingly stressful work environments, heavy caseloads and dwindling resources, cynicism and negativity from coworkers, low job satisfaction and, for some, the risk of being physically assaulted by patients.”  Believe me, I’ve been down every one of these roads.  Eventually the constant exposure to these situations causes a “pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their coworkers”  (Mathieu, 2007).  In short, the energy you put into your job depletes the energy and resources you could be using on your family and friends.  You’ll have emotionally exhausting days at work only to return home to experience emotional demands from those you love.  You’ll feel like crying about the things you heard and saw that day, but the tears will not fall.  Keep an eye out for compassion fatigue and take a break from work to tune back into the ones you care for.

So why do we do this work, you ask?  There are those rare occasions when you’re reminded you have sacrificed higher income, time with loved ones, and notoriety for small moments here and there.  You’ll know it when they happen and take special note of them.  One of my most special ones happened in a hospice room one spring afternoon.  My patient, a teenage boy unable to move his jaw due to large tumors on his face, had grown tired of fighting.  He knew his time was coming, but was unable to verbally communicate his feelings about it.  Over time, his ability to speak was taken from him and therapy with him turned into arm and hand massages.  I would enter the room to find him sleeping and as I sat bedside, he would slightly crack an eyelid and use his limited strength to place his arm in my hands.  I’d spend our hour together massaging his arm, fingers, and hands while telling jokes and soothing his fears about the afterlife.  As his time grew closer, he would mumble words and I gradually came to understand what he meant.  He asked for very few things and most often  I’d return to his room with a cold bottle of Dr. Pepper or grape flavored Gatorade to syringe-feed him the beverages until he was satisfied.  Shortly after he was given just a day or so to live, I could tell he was hovering in that transitional phase.  He begged his parents to hold his hand and help him cross over into heaven, but they felt they were only capable of seeing him into this world, not out of it.  I performed a routine visit with him and as I was situating his bedding and beverages, he loudly yelled to get my attention.  With what little strength he still had, he mumbled what I believed to be an inaudible word and pointed to the top of my head.  I didn’t understand.  I’d never heard this word come from his mouth.  I frowned and tried several variations of what I believed he said; he shook his head repeatedly until I asked ‘did you just say there’s a halo over my head?’  Relieved, he cracked a smile, nodded, and used his feeble index finger to draw a circle in the air above my head.  I teased him about it, assured him that some have contrarily referred to me as the devil, and I just assumed he’d been doped up on pain killers and anxiolytics.  Later, I asked his nurses what medications they’d given him to cause such wild hallucinations.  Their response?  “He’s had nothing today.”  After hearing my patient’s mumblings were as close to lucid as he’d been in days (without the use of medication), it became very clear to me.  The halo over my head was merely the extension of my help in the last moments of his life….perhaps because I walked into his vulnerable and feared moments when others walked out.

There are times when I look back at the faded State employee badge issued to me on 9/11/2000.  The girl in the picture is fresh out of college with very few wrinkles about her face and a naïve, innocent smile.  She hates the thought of transporting children in her new Mustang, and home visits to places with sticky floors and stained couches make her cringe.  The suburban-raised girl knows so little about trauma, much less the vicarious trauma that sixteen years later she wears on her shoulder like an ever-growing, yet unshakable backpack full of bricks.  Prior to being a social worker and therapist, she knew so little about what the helping profession would expose her to.  She thought social services just meant helping people get their lives back on track.  In a major way she was right, but more importantly and ironically, she was very wrong.  Wrong because the helping profession has actually been more like an exposure to all things heinous.  It has been listening to a mother recount her story of when she had to choose between which child to allow to die in order to save the other.  It landed her in situations where she doubted if she would return home that evening.  It’s been spending the last dollars in her wallet to ensure a family had food.  It’s seeing pictures of dead children and babies with boot prints on their stomach and intentionally-severed tongues.  It reminds her that there are grown men who prefer to have sexual relations with small children…and photograph it for the world to view.  It showed her that a bullet hole in the side of a head won’t necessarily kill a person who wants to die.

Sure, the helping profession has cost me a great deal (including my innocence), but the payout has been worth it.  I kiss my sons in a more meaningful way.  I treasure the small moments together with loved ones.  I don’t sweat the petty things, and I’ve been given this wonderful ability to see the world through the eyes of other people.  It if won’t matter in a week, it rarely bothers me in the present.  I judge nobody and know that every single person (regardless of economic status, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) has something to teach me.  But the irony of this profession usually comes full circle over and over throughout my career.  In the week before I quit working at the psychiatric hospital, I listened to a story from a patient who planned to jump off a bridge and end her life.  It was one of the most common threats and plans for suicide I heard while working there.  But what stopped her you ask?  The patient said she worried about surviving the fall.  In my heart I knew there were far worse things.  Death being one of them; and a 7 year old little girl witnessing the incident being the other.

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I’m Dead Serious

Two years ago today I watched in utter disbelief as she took her last breath.  It was a moment we joked about many times throughout our 13 year relationship.  Not that giving consideration to the death of one another was funny, per se, but we remarked at the vanity of our ‘last wishes.’  Over a glass of wine one winter night I proudly declared I wanted her to be absolutely certain I was buried in a casket, hair curled, make-up applied perfectly, with a somewhat cocky grin on my face.  I had even given thought to being posed with my middle finger sticking straight up.  She bellowed with laughter and said ‘Ew, please cremate me because I’m not as vain as you!”  With a raised eyebrow I suggested that her final wishes were fine with me, but should I run out of cat litter, I may ‘need’ her.  Without having to explain my dark sarcasm she again laughed hysterically.

It wasn’t that type of conversation you recall in those last moments because you’ll be too busy begging God for one personal miracle.  As I lingered there bedside with her cold skin pressed against mine, a puddle of tears pooled on the floor next to her bed and the whir of the life-sustaining machines faded away.  A final check for a heartbeat concluded and just like that, she was gone.  Gone also was the irreplaceable relationship between us.  I felt a profound void, like a hole that would exist forever throughout time and space.  The experience of losing a best friend and watching them expire isn’t a fate I’d wish on my worst enemy, but I wouldn’t be a good friend to her if I didn’t find the silver lining on this dark cloud.

Knowing her, I would be swiftly chastised for each and every tear I shed from missing her.  That is why I write.  Because although a person is dead, I am more alive.  And it is in her death that the following reflections were brought to life.

Of all the emotions known to man, regret can be the most exhausting to experience.  The last moments of a loved one’s existence will replay in your mind like a skipping CD.  Be sure that how you live each and every day is the way you would want to live your last.   Better yet, did you treat everyone you love today in a way that you’d be satisfied if it were their last?  When you walked out the door to head to work, did you remind them how much you love them?  Did you go to bed angry under the assumption that you’d both wake up?  Fights, betrayal, and undesirable circumstances will inevitably arise in relationships.  You may be upset with someone, but communicating your love for them in the midst of those trials takes less work than overcoming regret in light of tragedy.  Trials are temporary, but regret can last forever.

The second most powerful emotion?  Grief.  That horrific collision between hopelessness and emptiness-a seemingly tricky attempt at reconciliation between love and loss.  It can be likened to the ticking of a clock that exists virtually unnoticed until its presence dominates the empty space in a room….and the ticking is all you hear.  Grief serves as a subtle reminder that if each of us pauses to listen, we may realize that our clocks are all but ticking into an eternity.  What do we do with our remaining time?  Do we allow our existence on earth to serve selfish purposes?  Do we behave as though our time here is unlimited and that mortality is just a term they talk about in church?  Would our loved ones miss us?  Would we raise our children differently if we knew our clocks would only tick for one more week?  There have been days that grief so easily consumed me like an ocean-at times barely allowing for a breath one minute, then teasing me with the ability to backfloat the next.  Grief will demand that you experience it despite the intense pain that accompanies it.  Let yourself cry, schedule times to reflect with entire spells dedicated solely to laughing, crying, or longing for your loved one.  It’s okay to not be okay.

Never forget that we were designed for human connection.  The presence of others in our lives echoes the winds that blow at various times throughout the year.  Some folks will enter into your life for a brief moment, like a sweeping gust of wind that you can’t help but notice.  They aren’t necessarily in our lives for the long-term, but they remind us that we’re alive, sometimes they knock us off our path to set us on the correct one, and other times they may blow our skirt in the air.  Other people subtly comfort us like a gentle, yet ever-present breeze on a sunny day.  They cool our skin, tickle our noses with a scent of nearby flowers and vanish briefly; only to return at the most needed times.  Both types of wind serve a purpose.  Embrace each one and allow them to fulfill their destiny in your life.

If you ever get the chance, hold the hand of someone who may not live into the next day.  You might find yourself hanging on each and every breath-the act of remaining present despite overwhelming emotion.  If they can speak about life, ask them as many questions about what mattered most to them.  Looking back on a life ending, you’re probably going to realize it truly was the small things they reflect upon.

Skip the notion of needing to be perfect or think everything should be in its place before you can welcome friendship and love into your life, or your home for that matter.  How lucky have I been to have had this type of friend in her?!  True friends’ presence in your life shouldn’t be contingent upon your perfection.  We are all flawed humans with hang-ups, hiccups, awkward idiosyncrasies and imperfections.  Expose them and see who stays around.  They are your true friends.  Cling to them and offer them the same acceptance.

Find that one person that gets you.  If you’re lucky it may be more than one person.  Learn to love them in the face of betrayal, grip their hand tightly, fight for them, stand with them to confront trials and walk closely with them at times when everyone else walks out.  Chase after them if they run away, offer your vulnerability time and time again, abandon ledgers of indebtedness and entitlements, take time to learn them and allow them to love you.  Stop at nothing to accept their love however they are willing to offer it.  Sacrifice your time, energy, and resources and in the end you’ll be glad they took that with them.

Two Argue

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If you can just get them to stop with the constant competition and arguing, you may be surprised to find you actually only hear what you want to.  They are fierce competitors and often argue valid points.  At times one speaks louder and at other times, both of their voices are muffled by the hustle and bustle of life.  I have a feeling if you listened long enough, you’d finally hear the end of it and maybe one would shut UP!

L- “I am far greater than you, don’t you know?  I was here first.  That should solve this disagreement.”  

D- “Arriving first into the world doesn’t mean you’re the best, idiot.  And just because I got here after you doesn’t make me any less.”

L- “Yes, but merely being here the longest makes me better than you.”

D- “Perhaps by your standards.  But what if instead we poll the people and figure out who is greatest by their report?”

L- “I’ll fight that battle.  But what you don’t know is that despite what everyone may say, I’m STILL the biggest!  Songs have been written about me.  People do crazy things because of me.  The world needs more of me!”

D- “Yes, but more people fear me so surely I’m the toughest.  I’m darkness; instant silence to some, yet to others I creep slowly into their space and snuff out the light.  It’s like a win-win situation for me either way.”

L- “I am bigger, stronger, and can last longer.  You see, in order for one to enjoy my beauty, they simply have to focus on it.  And my strength?  They easily choose when they want to exercise it.  I give them control and that’s what people often seek.”  

D- “I agree.  Control is what they seek and I take it from them.  This is what makes me more powerful.”

L- “Yes, but I never cease to exist.  Even in your aftermath, I have managed to gently sneak into the heart and spirits of those living to connect them to folks who have long departed.”

D-  “My sting burns the souls of human for many years, often causing them to pause and withdrawal from things like you.  It’s almost as if I have the power to make people believe you have stopped existing.  I am absolute, concrete, and final.  Can you boast to that?”

L- “No, actually I cannot.  But I’m ever-changing, abstract, and can I offer each person a unique experience.”    

D- “Yeah yeah.  Who cares what others experience because of you.  Because of me, human beings feel their mortal sorrow crush their spirits.  They can clearly define a ‘before me’ and an ‘after me’ in their lives.   Even better than that?  I can make one think and rethink a last conversation, interaction, that one last day, and words left unsaid.”  

L-  “Yes, you can.  But I AM those unspoken words.  I am what people finally hear once the hurt heals.”

D- “I’ve completely derailed the lives of many.  It’s almost funny to watch them replay my movies in their heads-like a broken record that plays over and over, I can make them lose sleep, stop eating, and lash out at their loved ones.  Now THAT, is power!”

L- “Well, not quite.  I first must exist at even the smallest level before one can experience sorrow.  Without me, you really don’t matter.  I’ll be there long after you’ve come and gone.  You see, Death, your sting lasts just a second but MY strength endures throughout time and eternity.  It cannot be shut down, eliminated, or extinguished unless one so chooses.  Ultimately Death, in the end you’re nothing without me.  I am Love.  I was here first and I will be here last.”  

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Stars on the Farm

In my 38 years of living there has only been one time I’ve had the privilege of visiting a farm for an entire weekend. I figured it would just be a few nights in a remote location, free from the interruptions of the daily grind…but I was just a little bit correct.

I was born and raised in the city. The most ‘country’ I’ve dared to own was living in Bolivar, Missouri for the four years I attended college.  Well, technically there was about a year in there when I lived on a lot of land with horses and the such, but that’s another story.  A couple weeks ago at the last minute, the boyfriend texts me and asks if I want to go to his family’s farm with him over the weekend.  Even though it was on a whim, I packed bags for my kids and myself, hopped in his truck and we made the four hour drive to this famous place he routinely speaks of.  I should probably admit that I was a little worried.  Not only about taking three boys under 13 on a four hour drive, but also about being without cellular reception, missing the fast-paced life I live in the city, and occupying my time there.  What I didn’t realize, though, was that after coming home I would only face the reality that I’ve missed out on far more than I anticipated.  I suppose I underestimated how much the farm and its surroundings would teach me.

Late one night after all three boys had been tucked in, the boyfriend emerged from the outdoors, walked into the family room and took my hand. He led me outside through the pitch black night down a dirt road.  We ended up on the outskirts of the farm and laid down to face the night sky.  The visual was like something out of a movie…or better yet, a planetarium.  Stars as far as the eye could see!  With the backdrop of crickets chirping, frogs croaking, and cicadas buzzing, the stars illuminated the night sky.  Constellations I once learned about in science class, shooting stars beckoning attention, objects that were too big to be anything other than planets, and the twinkle of far-off satellites entertained us for a farm hour or so.

It sounds so simplistic, maybe even good material for a grand ole yawnfest. Yeah, we looked at a bunch of stars.  Writing about it simply cannot do it justice.  But there’s a greater lesson (or two) that this little nighttime adventure taught me…I figured I’d teach you too.

1).  Have you ever noticed how the stars look different in the city…or wait, did you stop to admire them last night?  Often, our backdrop or placement in time and space is the very thing that limits our vision.  What are we missing out on because we stay in our box and refuse to step out of our comfort zone??  For me, the country as I imagined was a bit of a ‘discomfort zone.’  I figured I wouldn’t have neighbors within close proximity, perhaps there would be an insane amount of bugs, and access to technology would be limited.  While all of those things may have been true, stepping outside my comfort zone and developing an acceptance with the present moment without judgment opened my eyes and my heart to things previously unrecognized.

2). Inner peace may only be achieved by slowing your life down.  The daily grind does much more to us than stress us out.  We often get caught up in just trying to get through the day in order to deal with the next.  Our weary heads hit the pillow at night, thankful that the day’s responsibilities have been handled, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again.  In this hamster wheel of life, the unfortunate truth remains that the things that matter most are forgotten, under-valued, and unappreciated.  Our focus turns outward and the human being within us is starved for attention. 

In order to re-center your life, examine your inner person and assess how satisfied you are with achieving your hopes and dreams.  What about you do you fail to appreciate because you’re too busy living your life?  What areas might you need improvement?  What are your strengths?  What would you do if your life were to come to an abrupt halt in six months?  Would you spend that valuable time with electronics, working so hard that stress overwhelms you, or becoming wrapped up in petty scenarios?  If you aren’t where you want to be, slow down, make lists, prioritize important people and things, and let the ancillary things dissolve.  Like the stars, taking time to inwardly focus reveals those things that should be priority but perhaps aren’t.

3).  Learn to appreciate your ‘dark.’  The darkness often truly reveals our light and isn’t until we are smack dab in the middle of an overwhelming abyss of darkness that we begin to see things more clearly.  Trials usually don’t space themselves out in your life over six month periods of time and they certainly don’t cut off the limit at ‘too difficult to withstand.’  But before you judge yourself and fall into self-deprecation mode, survey your shining strengths and employ them.  They’re there and remember that the light in the stars is more easily observed in the darkest period of the night.  You may also want to look around and take note of the special friends that are still there holding your hand in your dark.  It’s easy to hold the hand of a friend in the happy times, but holding the hand of someone hurting, someone who hasn’t made decisions like you would, or someone that sees no hope takes more character.  Your ‘dark’ usually holds more secrets and truths than your light so embrace it.

4).  The things which provide us happiness, tranquility, and peace are usually right in front of our faces; we simply fail to appreciate them until they are gone.  Have you ever heard someone say “the stars weren’t out last night” only to have a wiser person respond with “NO, they’re always there.  Sometimes you just can’t see them!”  Yes, the bright stars are always in the sky.  At times they are covered by clouds, while other times their light is snuffed out by smog.  Or perhaps their light is drowned out by our dark, vast sea of responsibilities, roles, prejudices, criticism, scrutiny, or cynicism. Sadly even, the important people in our lives are overlooked, underappreciated, and taken for granted.  We may not even appreciate their existence until they, like the stars, are untouchable. You see what you want to see, so choose wisely.

 

It seemed like just a simple walk down a gravel, country road at night. Thank God it wasn’t.

 

Dating a Personal Trainer: Horrific or terrific?

“I wish I was as thin as I was when I thought I was fat.”  It was a saying I once saw as I walked briskly past a window at a local antique store.  I laughed hysterically the first time I read it aloud.  It’s a mouthful, but I instantly reflected upon how the very athletic college version of me picked at the tiniest imperfection in my figure.  I felt too fat even though I was more muscular than I ever had been and ever will be.  I had put to rest the idea of ever achieving that physique again for the rest of my life.  It would be impossible, I thought.  After all, my knees have been operated on five times, my hip clunks, I need a shoulder surgery for the worst type of impingement, and I have a bit of a limp in my stride when I play sports or workout.  I created a mound of lame excuses and rested comfortably atop them, content to simply exist.

Flashback to the latter part of 2014 when on a first date the Personal Trainer Boyfriend (who will now be referred to as PTB) tells me what he does for a living.  I can still hear the words and recall almost choking up an entire mouthful of Dr. Pepper I’d consumed earlier in the day.  He says “I’m a personal trainer and I own a gym.”  “Awwww hells bells.  This fatty butter party is over,” I think to myself.  I mean, I’ve spent my fair share of time in the gym-what with 25 years of basketball, conditioning, and weight lifting under my belt.  I shrugged and figured I knew my way around the barbells and squat rack.  But when he gets up briefly, reality sets in and I text my gal pals “For once, I really like this one…but I’m gonna have to lose about fifteen pounds STAT.  Oh, and FML.”  I’d be lying if I didn’t sit here and say that I thought about crash dieting, starving myself, or doing anything that might render that midnight-infomercial, lightning-fast weight loss.  Then I wondered what within myself caused me to want that.  Was it the desire to ‘match’ the man I’m going to consider for a relationship?  Was I more worried that he wouldn’t accept me in as-is condition?  Was it the ongoing burning desire to make something better of myself?  After all, we all want to look better, right?  Or was it the old has-been athlete knocking on my sub-conscious begging for a good, old-fashioned Southern revival of sorts?  Maybe a little of all of the above.  But all I know is almost nine months later, I’m back at my college playing weight (that’s a 45 pound weight loss) and I’m starting to see muscles emerge from areas I once figured would slowly slip into an eternal atrophy, one of those muscles being the most important.

Flash forward to present day.  People seem far more interested in what he does for a living than what I do.  I’m a therapist and can ramble on and on about suicidal patients, severe and persistent mental illness, and the comedy that frequently accompanies it.  But I make mere mention of his career and the questions start rolling in.  “Oh, you date a personal trainer?!  I BET that’s interesting.”  The proverbial crickets chirp for a split second while I wait for the infamous follow-up question.  “Wait, is that a good or bad thing?”  I stop to ponder and snicker to myself because looking back I’d have to say there were times when I initially thought it was horrific.  However, in retrospect and for the most part, it’s actually been terrific.  So I’ll present the case and let you make the judgement….because most do anyway.

Exhibit #1: Bye-Bye to the Has-Been blahs.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in competitive sports, you’ve probably fallen victim to the rigamarole of the same ol’ same ol’ activities.  You’ll squat, bench, incline, military press, etc.  But have you ever picked up heavy atlas stones, walked with a yoke on your back, or flipped gigantic tractor tires?  Dating a personal trainer adds that type of variety to my life.  It’s been so much more than just your typical exercises.  Try learning how to use a prowler, perform farmer carries, and spend hours on trail runs in the winter.  It makes me feel stronger than I used to be, and perhaps even more empowered and versatile.  And those feelings, if anything, have reinvigorated the sleeping athlete!

Exhibit #2:  He’s adaptive.

In a typical day in his training studio, I’ve watched him alternate rapidly between appointments with people who remember what life was like before the Second World War and teenagers who don’t recall what life was like without Facebook.  He can not only modify his training, teaching, and techniques to fit the needs of those who should practice how to recover from a fall, but he also can gear sessions towards young men who powerlift in their free time.  Inevitably, the skills we develop in our careers bleed into our home lives at some point.  However, the abilities of adapting to change and accepting challenge are vital components in most successful relationships.  PTB has both of these objectives nailed down.

Exhibit #3:  Body fat analysis/paralysis.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember having your body fat percentage checked in gym class.  You know the drill…the cold claw o’ death grabbing large chunks of fatty tissue about your hip, waistline, the back of your arm, and upper back.  Oh, and lest we forget its magical sideshow computer buddy spits out a number-an infamous number that tells us how much of our body is comprised of fat and how much of it is actually muscle.  The first time PTB fat-chunk grabbed was horrific.  I think my eyes glassed over and I trailed off to my happy place. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about smothering him with all that fat in his sleep.  Prior to this point in time, my unhealthy lifestyle was just an abstract, passing thought.  But seeing that number in cold, hard digital was concrete evidence that I unfortunately resigned to allowing age, obesity, and general toxicity to take over what was once a strong, athletic body.  What else did the claw/computer combo tell me?  It was time for radical change.  Since that day, I completely revamped my eating habits and I’ve incorporated weight lifting back into my life.  After recently experiencing the second round of ‘the claw,’ I can proudly report I’m down seven per cent in body fat.  Yeah, that’s progress, but not a stopping point.  PTB continues to guide me into losing the fat and adding muscle back so I’ll check back in later and let you know how it ends up.

Exhibit #4:  Learning curve and learning curves.

I’m a self-proclaimed wordsworth.  Yep, up to this point in my life I’ve definitely heard the words “clean, jerk, and snatch.”   I utilize each of them routinely, both at work and at home….generally from the minute I get out of bed in the morning.  But the first time PTB uttered the words “let’s see your snatch” while in the gym working out together I figured it was a free pass to skip the next set of deadlifts and incorporate some ‘cardio.’  As I began peeling off my Lulus, he hands me a kettlebell and says, “not quite.”  I hold the kettlebell (for the first time) in my hand and look at it wondering what purpose it serves.  It looks so odd to me.  I’d never done a ‘snatch’ before and didn’t know what a ‘clean’ and ‘jerk’ were as they related to the gym environment.  Ohhh, but now I do!  Can I perform them correctly?  Eh, I’m working on it.  But at least NOW I know and I’ve incorporated new terminology into my gym-life.

Exhibit #5:  Those envious green shakes.

Truth be told, the first time I was offered a swig of Dr. Pepper, I didn’t think twice, grimace, or pseudo-gag.  I swallowed it like a pro and later developed quite the addiction.  So it should come as no surprise that when PTB offered me a spinach shake, I choked back a proverbial dry-heave.  I knew it was a test.  He handed over a glass full of freakin’ chunky green stuff.  The consistency could be likened to vomit in my mind.  After all, it’s dark green with a veggie-like odor and wetness.  I stare at it for a split second, wanting to rinse it down the sink when he isn’t looking and then I’m quickly confronted with PTSD-like flashbacks to my great-grandmother forcing me to eat slimy, slithery spinach.  Yeah, I get it.  The shake is green because it’s loaded with fresh spinach, which just so happens to be blended.  It also comes stocked with protein powder, a small amount of fruit, flax seed, and various other healthy goodies.  The first taste test didn’t end as badly as I initially predicted.  I’ll concede that spinach shakes are an acquired taste.  But if I’m going to acquire a taste, it may as well be for something that will prolong my life.  In the end, I’ve not only added the green spinach shakes to my regular menu, but I’ve also learned how to make a purple protein smoothies that the kids beg for.  And as they chug it, I’m thinking to myself “they have no idea how good that is for them.”

Exhibit #6:  He’s a corrective exercise specialist.

Passing back and forth in his gym one afternoon, he mumbles the words “Your bench is all effed up, by the way.”  Being a woman, I immediately take offense and think ummmm, yeah, but my right hook is intact, big fella.  After I simmer the sensitive woman down, the athlete in me follows him into the next room and asks for his expertise on correcting it.  For years I probably lifted weights (very heavy weights) the wrong way.  It’s led to multiple knee surgeries, joint stiffness, and pain while walking-especially when the weather gets silly.  Every single joint on my body is crack-able.  Yes, even my ribs, pelvis, and elbows snap, crackle, and pop.  I can assuredly say that my joint issues are probably directly related to incorrect weight lifting practices, excessive running, jumping, and failing to follow through with rehabilitating my knees after surgeries.  So, being in the hands of someone who knows how to correct those bad habits while strongly encouraging me to take the time to do the rehab exercises is long overdue.

Exhibit #7:  Two irons in the fire.

Fewer things in life and dating are more attractive than discipline, focus, and the pursuit of self-improvement, whether that be mentally or physically.  It’s hard to be involved with someone who maintains a completely separate or opposing lifestyle.  Yeah, one could fake it for a short while but over time the disparity would grate nerves and generate resentment.  I love that on most days he’s resisting the urge to let himself be lazy.  His discipline in life and training are admirable, infectious, and respectable.  But because of that, I am constantly thinking about ways to improve myself, not only for me but for the betterment of our relationship.  Ultimately, it relates back to the ‘iron sharpens iron’ proverb.  I contribute what I’m capable to our relationship, but his desire to be better rubs off on me and I’m better because of it.

Exhibit #8:  Healthy eating.

The first assumption when I tell people I’ve lost a lot of weight since meeting PTB is that we “must workout together all the time.”  Actually, not really.  Yeah, we workout every so often but if you spend any amount of time around him, you’ll hear him say “abs are made in the kitchen!”  He not only trains people in the gym, he trains them in the kitchen-like, how to transform one’s palate and practice healthy eating.  This sounds ominous-eating more greens and protein while lowering consumption of starches and sugars.  I had done what most people do and fallen into the rut of cooking the same unhealthy things over and over again.  I kept potatoes on hand, loved eating dinner rolls with every meal, and tried to fix some sort of dessert to round things out.  And boy, did I ‘round things out.’  While unhealthy eating had affected me negatively, it was also directing my kids down the wrong path.  Enter PTB stage right.  Shortly after getting to know him, he began to educate me on healthy eating.  Yeah, I ‘kinda’ understood it and had randomly selected facets of that lifestyle to embrace.  However, others I completely avoided because the fight was too difficult.  I excessively consumed pop and refrained from ‘forcing’ my boys to eat healthy vegetables because I simply didn’t have the energy to fight them.  But after PTB has modeled a healthier lifestyle by making proper choices in what we eat, I feel better, look better, and the differences are showing in my children too.  Not only are they less hyperactive, but they are slimming down and even starting to identify which foods belong in each category.  Fortunately for me, PTB is skilled beyond the four walls of his gym.  He owns his kitchen and is a seasoned pro at making protein pancakes (that even kids devour), healthy shakes, and alternatives to desserts and fatty foods.  So yeah, healthy eating may sound ominous, but what’s more?  An early death by chain swallowing toxicity.

Exhibit #9:  It’s getting personal.

Well, it’s called personal training for a reason.  You’re supposed to get a training regimen geared specifically for your needs as the client.  But poor PTB, he had no idea what he was walking into with Yours Truly.  I’ve had five knee surgeries, chronic hip pain, and was told my shoulder needed surgery at some point in the near future.  Most inexperienced, idiot, fly-by-night personal trainers would run from someone like me.  I’m a personal training NIGHTMARE and I get it.  But PTB stepped up to the plate and developed a program especially for me and all my ‘tissue issues.’  He knows an awful lot about the human anatomy, kinesiology, and sport injuries.  That’s beneficial more than you know.  He can rattle off all kinds of origins, insertions, muscle groups, and various other anatomical terminologies better than most doctors I know.  Yes, that’s incredibly useful to someone like me and it should be to anyone else out there.  I highly doubt, though, that the general public truly understands and appreciates the individualized exercises that only a personal one-on-one trainer can provide.  Specialized programs (like the ones PTB proposes) develop one’s muscles far better than this Crossfit-Applicable-To-All mentality that seems to be running rampant lately in the fitness world.  So for now, we’ll continue to keep it personal.  But truth be told…he had me early on at his proper use of the word ‘chondromalacia.’

Exhibit #10:  Looks may not be everything…but they’re something.

It’s everyone’s worst nightmare, yet few have the nerve to admit it.  We all worry that the person we’re dating will double in size and let themselves go.  Women, I’ll give you a break for now, but this new ‘dad-bod’ that some men proudly sport in public is becoming all too common.  Men embracing their inactivity and all the unhealthy toxins they cram down their throats while walking around with a beer gut and moobs.  And then they wonder why their wives, girlfriends, or random gals they meet reject their sexual advances.  It’s fairly simple math.  Moobs+beer belly+fatty tissue where muscles should be=leave the lights off and your t-shirt on.  Okay, perhaps I’m being too harsh.  After all, us women will love the men in our lives because of who they are-not necessarily how they look.  But if I had to take a guess, I bet the men that look the part of a man’s man receive higher payout than the alternative.  So, the most terrific thing about dating a personal trainer, you ask?  I’ll leave some of that to your imaginations, but for now just assume it has something to do with the way he looks without a shirt on.

Exhibit #11:  Buying all new jeans.

The jeans I wore on our first date fit me snuggly about my waist, hips and butt.  Yeah, I had tried losing weight since my grad-school-weight-gaining extravaganza, but it seemed to come off much more slowly than I wanted.  It wasn’t a matter of not trying.  I had encountered a great deal of life stressors (divorce, death of a close friend, major abdominal surgery, chronic joint paint, etc.) and I lacked motivation.  I knew the right things to do (for the most part), but I needed that additional education about nutrition and someone to drag me off the couch on Sunday afternoons for workout time together.  Now, nine months later I brush past the ‘fat jean’ pile in the basement and I feel both proud and saddened.  Proud that all the work and effort I put into being a healthier person is evidenced in that pile and around my waistline.  But sad that I spent all that money on over 30 pairs of jeans and pants.  Sad that I didn’t try this sooner.  Sad that I’ve exposed my two boys to unhealthy living.  Sad that not everyone can feel this feeling of victory and that people die every day over poor lifestyle choices which can easily be reversed.  Boy, where would I be had I not met him?  Makes me wonder and makes me thankful.

Final Verdict:  Dating a personal trainer–horrific or terrific?

A great deal of evidence would suggest that dating a personal trainer was initially horrific.  Change at any rate can be scary, especially when it likely involves lifestyle alterations that impact your children, cost you extra money, and infringe upon your free time.  But the overarching benefits to embracing the change and dramatically revamping thoughts and behaviors about fitness and nutrition have far exceeded the costs.  If it ended today, my final verdict would still be such that dating a personal trainer has been terrific.

Love and Muscle Building

People flock to the gyms about this time every year.  They want to feel better, look better, lose weight, meet people, and the list of reasons goes on and on.  But truth be told, within the masses of people who enter the gym regularly the first month, only a small percentage of them remain six months later.  Sometimes I wonder why, and then other times the answer is clear.  They want to avoid pain.  The pain of adjusting their schedule to accommodate their need for exercise, the pain of sacrificing habits that once rendered them locked up in their homes in a lazy state of being, the pain that requires they abandon toxic addictions to food or substances, or the pain that follows approximately 24 to 48 hours after a workout.  Yeah, any of those among us who have spent even the smallest amount of time in a gym know that pain.  That build-up of lactic acid in our muscles that makes it difficult to move normally (if the workout was quality, I guess I should add).  Many people feel this pain once and it cripples them.  Ironically however, it’s this very time in muscle building that the growth is about to happen.  But the sad fact about our humanity endures: most of us simply can’t get comfortable being uncomfortable to allow that growth to occur.  Delaying gratification leaves a sour taste in our mouths and the absence of instant results sends people back to the same place from which they came-boredom and complacency.  Folks want to reap crops they won’t spend time sowing, and usually fall victim to the patterns of behavior that limit their potential and stifle growth.  And on top of that, everyone wants to whine about results they didn’t get from work they never did.  Shame on them.

But before you go on believing this is all about physical fitness or personal training, think again.  It’s actually a sneak attack, a metaphor if you will, about how we humans often allow our most important muscle to atrophy because we fear and avoid the very pain that promotes growth.  Redirect from personal training (which I know very little about) to therapy.  Remember that one muscle that is actually necessary for our survival?  You know the one….you or someone you know worked it once or twice, but it encountered a little bit of pain and you put it on the shelf.  Perhaps it was betrayal, a break-up, death of a loved one, or growing apart from someone who meant the world to you at one time.  Either way, you stopped ‘going to the gym’ because the lactic acid settled in.  So here’s the metaphor.  You ready?

In the end the simple fact remains-our hearts are just another muscle.  If left to be enveloped by fear, a heart calcifies and atrophies to the degree it cannot operate as effectively.  Other organs may compensate in its absence and perhaps, over time its beat can only be truly heard through a protective layer of skepticism, anger, resentment, or hurt.  Fear becomes an acid that wears away the true potential of our hearts.  It eats away at the very thing most human beings desperately want and need and in an effort to avoid any further pain, we run. So what’s the paradox?  Overcoming fear with courage is our only hope for growth-our only way to utilize that particular muscle.  Sadly, though, growth cannot occur without vulnerability; and vulnerability rarely exists without fear.  So when it hurts the most, when we are the most afraid, and when we are most vulnerable is the precise time to use it.  Just as any athlete will tell you, muscles don’t become larger, stronger, or faster by not being worked.  They develop by being hurt, by being pushed to their limits, by slightly tearing, and most of all-by failing.  Love then, perhaps isn’t true love until your heart has been hurt, pushed to its limit, torn, ripped out or broken.  Love is more authentic after you’ve failed and after you’ve been rejected, and after you walk into it eyes wide open knowing it could hurt you again.  So work your heart, but not in the ‘treadmill’ sense.  Give it a chance to feel again, to take a risk again, and to accept another person in spite of their flaws and shortcomings.  Loving another person before you’ve felt the sting of a broken heart?  That’s easy-perhaps effortless.  But love after a broken heart when one must willfully suspend their fear, hurt, and disbelief?  Now that, my friends, is building muscle-the most important one, at least.

A Win-Win Situation.

corey reffing

Let me start this blog by saying I know next to nothing about the children portrayed in this image. In addition to that, I know very little about the sport of wrestling. It’s a winter sport that played at the same time I spent countless hours on the basketball court-so real talk is that it was just background noise at practice for me. However, in spite of the vast differences between the sports, this picture still captivates me for so many reasons. It has been featured on wrestling websites and people have derogatorily posted their beliefs that the defeated child (which just so happens to be a boy) is a “f****** loser.” I don’t know where someone must be in their mind to make such comments-especially about children. I would have hoped that we as a society had moved beyond further victimization of the perceived powerless and weak. But, unfortunately we haven’t.

I can tell you that being a woman in a sport that is primarily dominated by men has been a challenge. I have played basketball at the high school, college, and semi-pro levels, yet even today (in 2014) when I walk into the gym with a ball tucked underneath my arm, men stop to stare and ask me what I’m doing there. Part of me wants to say “I’m looking for my cookbook and sewing materials” but I get it. The court is their ‘turf’ and I’m an intruder because I arrived in a pony tail and sports bra. Perhaps it’s their rudimentary way of trying to start conversation or maybe, just maybe society is still a little sexist. In all the years I’ve played basketball (now about 25), I have had the opportunity to play women and men at varying degrees of athleticism and success. I was often the only woman to play on the courts with the men and instantaneously had to adjust to using a men’s sized basketball. There were times the pace was so intense, I knew I was only there for a cardio workout-not for my scoring and rebounding abilities. There were other times I would hit the proverbial athletic ‘plateau’ and needed the challenge that only men could provide. There was just something better about playing men. They made me think harder about passes, find more athletic ways to navigate court traffic, and my height of six feet mattered not with them. Yeah, I wanted to do it, but I also HAD to play men. Nobody gets better at anything by sitting on their couch and waiting for the opportune time and set of opponents to play. If I wanted to be the best at my skill, that meant I had to play as much as possible and with whomever possible.

Over the years, however, the Catch 22 continues to exist and it manages still to create a tension thick enough to cut with a knife. I am often still the ONLY woman on the court. When we match up prior to games, I can see their uncomfortable looks darting around. Who HAS to guard me? Do they play me soft? Do they let me score? Aren’t they a chump if I score on them? If I foul them on a shot, do they respond with ‘check ball’ or ignore that it happened to prevent accusations of being a baby? And furthermore, I can only guess if my skills as far as scoring, rebounding, and defending are perceived as legit or ‘good…..for a girl.’ Would they push a man harder? Did he let me score? When they help me up off the floor, is it because they perceive me as the ‘weaker sex?’ If I score, they yell to one another “dude, you just let a girl score on you!” If I block shots, juke defenders, or steal the ball clean out of their hands, the other players cackle, name-call, and verbally assault my opposition. Often I catch myself whispering to my defender the words “guard me like a man, because I’m planning to do the same to you.” It’s been a lose-lose situation for all of us. Or has it?

I am good because of women, but I’ve been the best I can be because of men. Men who coached me; men who took time away from their own families to hone skills even after practice; men who guarded weight rooms; men who played on the blacktop at the local parks until the lights went out on those blazing hot summer nights; men who rebounded for me in my childhood driveway while snow and sleet pelted my red hands; men who rehabbed my knees; men who taught me how to play HORSE; men who believed in me when I didn’t recognize my own potential. But most of all, I’ve excelled at all levels of basketball because of men who had guts strong enough to play me.

I’m not making this blog about myself or my basketball career which fades deeper into the abyss by the minute. I write for the children featured here and for society as a whole. Iron sharpens iron-regardless of age, race, religion, gender, etc. Each person in life has a story to tell and something to teach us. When a man (or boy in this particular instance) steps onto the mat with a female, he says I’m here to learn and I’m here to teach. Where your weakness exists, therein my strength may lie and vice versa. In the end, I respect this little boy, his organization, and whoever allowed or encouraged him to compete against a girl. It’s been said that you learn more when you lose, but this is a win-win situation no matter whose hand is held in the air at the end of the match.