Tuesday, December 11, 2012

It's a Setup!

Some of us are not supposed to make it. Not in a survival of the fittest way, but in a very deliberate way. Our country is set up in such a way that the very systems we are supposed to rely upon to make us Harder, Better, Faster, and Stronger, are the same systems that are built to be the demise of those of us on the lower end of the totem pole, monetarily. I kind of just recently realized that I think I am one of those people. I'm a little behind, I know.

I grew up in what I now understand to be New Money. My mother had a bachelor’s degree from a college in Mexico and was a homemaker. My father does not have any college degree (I’m not even entirely certain that he graduated from high school. I know he got kicked out a lot). My dad was a professional singer for a long time, and then worked in marketing in the casinos in Atlantic City. He made a lot of money that way, and we had a beautifully landscaped home with a swimming pool. Money was a non-issue growing up, and I always assumed we had it in abundance as a kiddo.

Obviously, this was not the case. Despite my father’s success, my family spent a lot and I’m guessing we never really got ahead. My father still works, at age seventy. My mother has worked retail for the past ten years – she is fifty-nine.

As for me, I chose a career in the social services, always believing that what I do is more important than what I make. I’m in my second Master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania, making my graduate school price tag over $200,000. If I’m able to make $60,000 a year, I’ll consider myself lucky. So there’s that.

In addition to the astronomical cost of my education (which has been invaluable and made me a much better human, don’t get me wrong), I’ve become intimately familiar with the cost of healthcare for those of us that have to pay for it. Student health plans are required, and cost $3,000 a year. I just got a bill for $150.00 for a routine dermatology appointment. After I’d given them my insurance card. So…what that card is good for, I’m not entirely sure.

My friend Josh lives in Poland. He recently told me about the high cost he is paying for his graduate education - $4,000/year. I’m paying that amount per class. His wife got over a year off for maternity leave. Seriously. Go Poland.

Looking at my future, I’m afraid. I’m not a person who can dictate my life choices based on money, but I don’t want to ever feel as though I don’t have enough for basic needs, or for preventative health and dental care, or to keep my car running well. I don’t know if I’ll always have enough, and I don’t want to have to work eighteen hours days in order to have enough. This makes me sad, and nervous.

In talking with some other students at Penn, I’ve found out that many of them have no loans to speak of – that their parents are paying the entirety of their tuition. This blows my mind. Maybe these are the real privileged folks? Or maybe they, too, will eventually run out of money. I don’t know – but they’re about $200,000 head of me, and that’s got to be worth something for them.

We live in a nation that is set up specifically to keep a certain number of people afloat, in a big way. For those people, this is the best place on earth. They will continue to have a cache of money that self-recycles, and so they will also have access to the very best services and resources in the world. I think the rest of us are tricked into paying out the nose for quality, only to realize that we will never have enough to fully catch up. This keeps us at one end of a spectrum, and allows the big money to concentrate at the other end. I realize none of this is revelatory. It just makes me feel unsafe in a way I haven’t before, and I felt I had to comment. Anyone else?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Lost in Translation

Community Service Centers were based on a wonderful idea. Mental health in the 1960s and early 70s was coming to a new place, a place in which the individual was going to be considered based on their own unique life experiences. Simply, a young  African-American kid in rural Georgia would be treated differently than an elderly Caucasian man from Philadelphia. The neighborhood would be part of the solution, working in conjunction with professionals in the Service Centers to create services relevant to the consumers being served.

The beauty of CSC's was dampened somewhere in the execution. At that time in history, there were almost no minority practitioners due to continued issues with racism within education and employment sectors. That left mostly White practitioners serving some communities that were made up of 100% minority populations. This stacked the odds against practitioner-community collaboration from the very start.

Beyond this, those that designed the CSC's were not the same people that implemented the plans. Ultimately, mostly White, affluent practitioners were hired - this population of workers was unable or unwilling to connect with the diverse populations of all the CSC's. When the consumers and the workers found that they could not come to consensus, issues of racism, classism, and general cultural incompetence created a lack of trust and disappointment within the communities, and the CSC's failed to fulfill their promises.

Behind many failed attempts at greatness are truly pure intentions and phenomenal ideas. The problem lies in the execution - the resulting sculpture is not at all what the sculptor intended, although the original design was amazing. I think this has something to do with ideas becoming too big, and with the hands actually implementing the procedures being too far away, sometimes states or countries away, from the minds that designed them. Too lofty, too large, too far.

So. I propose that we all pay attention to the small ways that we can do something about the little things that we see happening around us, and fill in those holes with our own hands. I've noticed that West Philadelphia lacks for therapists, and I'm initiating a private practice in the area for the teen population to try to fill that hole (and do my work that I love, of course). I can see that's done how I hope it should be, how I envision it to be, because it's just me. It's a small idea and I think I can make it happen.

What are other holes we notice? How can we fill them? What brilliant ideas can we implement within the space of our own communities, our own streets, our own homes, that might make a lasting and worthwhile impact, tiny though it may be? This seems important to me. Isn't it though?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

On Stewardship

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in...

On Black Friday, holiest of holidays for many, my boyfriend's mother fell asleep at the wheel and crashed her car into a guardrail. As I write this, she is in surgery having some of her broken spinal bones fused together, while her family waits to see what's next. Because her family is sometimes my family, I guess I'm waiting, too.

We went last evening after Ryan (said boyfriend and partner) got out of work to visit her at Lehigh Hospital. Ryan's father and sister were already there, on cell phones and making themselves useful with a water-dabbing contraption. Ryan's mother was laid out on a table, head pointed up at the ceiling and braced so as to not move any precious bones around. She looked banged up and scared. Ryan told some stories and spent general time with his family. I became small controller of my immediate universe, as I am always apt to do in semi-crises, and asked for fluids and pain medications and anything else that didn't look like it was being done by the nurses, and openly judged the hospital staff. It's how I contribute.

I love this little family, and I am hyper-aware right now of how their lives are likely going to change from this event. Ryan's mother is always moving; he calls her a "busy-body" in the very literal sense of the word - she is never sitting still, and is always doing for the house or the church or the family. For the foreseeable future, that won't be happening, and I can't hep but think about how that will impact Ryan and his father, and his sister's family. When one part of a working system stops working, every other part either fails to work as well, or accommodates itself and changes too. This leaves room for learning, love, and personal development, as well as frustration and resentment. The chips will fall where they may; I have no idea where yet.

I realize the event will likely change me, too. My partner's response will elicit changes in me. My time and skills may be called upon for certain things, and I'll have to do what I think is best for the situation, including what is best for Ryan's mother and family, and what is best for me. I am aware that those things may not always be compatible with one another, and I'm interested to see what kind of person I'll be in this situation.

I know how to take care of other people very well, I've been doing it forever, I was my family's go-to helper for years. I renounced helper around age 21, when I became so sick with help that I was forced to attend to myself (this happens to unskilled helpers. I really do think Penn needs a class on self-care. Really). I've spent the past eleven years building on the art of helping myself: first, hearing my needs, then responding to them as though they were someone else's, then becoming important enough to myself that I responded to them because they were mine. I've been working on the nasty business of guilt for the past several years, and don't expect to be through with that one for at least a decade. But I'm active with it.

So this might be my first opportunity in this work on the care of self and others to see what happens when the two are brought together - what it looks like for me to give and also set boundaries, to juggle both the care of the self and the very present and constant care of someone else. I really have no idea what I'll bring to the table here. But I do feel willing, and I'm encouraged by that.

A final thought: My belief in God has morphed into something that I realized today looks more like this: I'm not much for the idea that there is someone upstairs controlling events and making thigns happen or not happen. I think all of us down here do a good job of making both terrific and terrible things happen and not happen. But when they do, I do think that God presents itself in the opportunity to respond, and to be stewards for one another, and for ourselves, and also that learning the art of this stewardship might be the whole point. I hope it is.

Sunday, November 18, 2012



So, above is a link to a performance by the Spellbound dance company. Do watch it; it's beautiful and amazing to see. I saw them this weekend, and am still affected by the experience. Haunting, powerful, and familiar. All those good things that art performances should be.

The performance I saw was described as an expression of lack of verbal connection in our culture - so many "empty words" said, with humans trying to reach one another in whatever ways they can think of, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so. This theme is highly familiar and highly relevant to me. My focus and priority over the past five years has centered in on connection, to such a point that a day without real conversation feels false and lazy. I am tireless in my efforts to be heard and be understood, amongst my people, and, in smaller ways, everywhere else. I've found that the world is very scary to me without this process, which is funny, because there was  time when intimacy and vulnerability were the scariest things around. I doggedly pursue the privilege of being vulnerable anywhere and everywhere. I don''t feel myself otherwise.

In lieu of this, I have become aware of the importance of language and dialogue in my life. This is something I wish were different. I am always feeling the need to explain myself, or tell on myself, almost. It's as though my thoughts need to be said out loud in order for them to be legitimate. I have such respect for people that can communicate in silence or choose their words carefully but still carry maximum impact. I hope to get to that place myself sometime.

However, I would argue that this profession creates a need for language. There is a pulse inside me that needs to be released to maintain personal health and not break under the sadness and hopelessness of some days. Or, a joy that demands to be shared on others. There is a need to push back vocally to avoid getting absorbed into the day-to-day mess that's witnessed in psychotherapy. In this way, too, words prove necessary. At least for me.

But seeing this performance, I felt embarrassed by all my talking. I think I assume that other people won't understand my emotional state unless I lay it out explicitly, and I wonder if maybe this is foolish. Or maybe it's more foolish to expect that anyone could "read my mind" unless I'm completely forthright. But it's worth looking into - how we are talking to each other without saying anything, and the many ways that might take shape. It certainly leaves wide open spaces for art, for dance, for music, and for silence, within the space of psychotherapy.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I Am The Cheese

I am not the most popular person right now.

I'm interning at a charter high school in center city, working with a fairly incredible group of kids in pretty impossible situations. The challenge is good, and I look forward to spending time with the kids each time I walk into the building. It's valuable work.

Having worked as a school-based mental health consultant at a high school for five years myself, I know the ropes of high school mental health well. I am confident in my abilities to do what's necessary for the kiddos, and generally I know what that is. I worked under an incredible supervisor in my position at Great Valley, and honestly have no want/need for someone to fill those shoes. My approach is somewhat arrogant, I know, but really it comes down to: just let me do the work.

Of course, this is not making me any friends. I'm winning no popularity points at my internship. The counseling director where I am placed has now requested to meet with me weekly to help guide my education; as he and I have disagreed on more than one occasion about how best to address a problem, I believe this to be a way to keep dibs on me, more than anything else.

My direct supervisors are genuinely great people, and I like them very much. But they are trying to lay low to remain in the good graces of the school staff, and any waves that I make impact them, and so they are always asking me in various ways to please just stay out of things, or please just don't say anything. And then I say something, and I know, once again, that I am NOT making friends.

This situation is hard. I'm back in school because I needed a license and wanted a more versatile degree, but I already have a Master's degree in the social sciences and I've been practicing for almost ten years - in  high schools, in nonprofits, in outpatient, in inpatient, as a crisis counselor, in  hospitals, in my own private practice...I've been PRACTICING. And I feel like someone's taking away my right to do so, because of this weird intern/student label, and I'm pissed, and I'm defensive, and I'm upset. And, I suspect, mildly to moderately unfriendly.

In this, there is learning, always learning, but less about how to do this job and more about who I am in the context of this job. I take my craft seriously, and I am good at it. I am a hard worker and a loyal advocate to my clients. But. I think I am also intimidating, and maybe a vaguely bad team player. And in being direct and resolved, I am not very gregarious or fun. I think that's a big piece of me, as practitioner. And coming to grips with that reality is, I think, the most important thing grad school has taught me so far. And that's all for now.

Community Matters

I have thought about re-committing myself to church in some way often, at least once or twice weekly, for years now. I never have particularly liked church, and as I find myself having evolved into a religion-is-generally-a-bad-idea-for-me type of human, I really couldn't reconcile going somewhere that was specifically religious. I thought maybe an Episcopal church would be a lovely experience, but my nonbelief snagged me. I tried going to a couple Unitarian churches, only to find myself accosted by flowery poems by various inspired congregation members, and even subjected to an improvised interpretational dance. So that was out.

Church appeals to me solely because of the hole it seems to fill, single-handedly, in communities. The bringing together of people trying to be the best versions of themselves, to lend a hand to one another whenever they can, and to give back to the small spaces where they live, love, and work. That this niche is filled by the church an mostly only the church baffles me - why is this idea so tied to organized religion, which can be so divisive and illogical? Why aren't all of us getting in on this idea just because it's a beautiful and inspiring thing?

Church without a church surely would include potato sack races.

I feel the need for this kind of community togetherness more and more as I age. I see people creating it however they can - mostly people creating community by making families and building babies. Since my own uterus still is in no way interested, I'm looking for the creation of something else...not a church...not a family unit...maybe an "intentional community?" In a non-hippie way. I'm bad at sharing. But just an intentional getting together of loved people, encouraging the best in each other and giving each other space to be just as they are?

But even beyond my beautiful friend base, I long for something else, something bigger. I live on the line of Powelton Village and Mantua, and many of my people live in West Philadelphia proper, and these areas all speak to me. Beautifying these areas appeals to me. Meeting and working with my neighbors appeals to me. Giving a service to the community (I'm thinking low-cost mental health services, since that's my deal) appeals to me. Church-y, community-building concepts. Minus the church-y space.

So that's what simmering inside me right now. I'm hoping it's a seed that will take shape and grow into something interesting and worthwhile. Because it seems like a need, right? For communities, for friends, for families, for neighbors, for me.

What does your community look like?

Thursday, October 25, 2012


I’m in a period of my life that feels very slow. Days seem longer than they have since I was in high school. I find myself for the first time in eleven years with six, seven, sometimes eight hours of “free time” to fill after I’ve completed my workday. I am sometimes astonished to find that I’ve gone for a walk, written half a paper, and made a homemade dinner and dessert, and it’s only 8:30pm.

Being a student is the greatest thing that’s happened to me since chocolate and cats.

I reflect on the past two years with particular interest, wondering how on earth I suffered through a two hour commute each way (read – a total of four hours of commuting daily) to a job I mostly hated, leaving home at seven AM and arriving home at seven PM. Going to bed just two hours later so I could get up at five thirty AM to maybe exercise or eat something unprocessed. Those were the unhealthiest two years of my life, a time of depression and feelings of hopelessness. I consider the two years that I get to spend in school to be a reward for those two years of total crappiness, a sharp breath of cold delicious air after a trek through a flat, hot desert (ok dramatic, but really – that’s how it feels). Aaaaaaaah. Scccchhhhhoooooolllll.

Yesterday during the break for my History of Social Work class, I spent some time talking to a classmate, Mimi. I like Mimi a lot. She is smart, and asks good questions, and seems self-possessed and motivated. We discussed settlement houses (we’d just been learning about Hull House), and what a modern settlement-type house might look like here in Philadelphia. We had the idea to talk with some other classmates and banter ideas back and forth, and maybe come up with some ideas about the needs of our city. As usual, I felt the small flicker of excitement torch in my belly when discussing potential creative outlets and the social sciences (and the combination of the two!) and promised to email Mimi. And I will.

My 25-year-old self already would have. The email would be sent, and others would be invited into the discussion, and a blueprint for the meeting would already have been made. I am historically a person who is on top of everything, two steps ahead. I get things done – I got things done.

Now it feels a lot different. Since the slowdown, my little burning idea has joined a small grocery cart of thoughts and interests floating around inside me that will be tended to in good time. While the excitement remains, the sense of urgency is muted. Rather, there is time to take a look at what I’m doing at any given moment, and just breathe it in and enjoy it, and it feels healthier than the marathon I was metaphorically running for so long, healthier by far. Life slowed down is savory, and I’m sucking it all in.

                                                   Grad school - as good as vacation.