Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I am a fire extinguisher

In yesterday's counseling session I came up with a metaphor for what I do during most of my work. I teach, yes, at least for a little while each day, or facilitate group sessions. But that's only for an hour at a time and I spend at least three hours each week at each unit. Otherwise, what I do mostly is sit or stand around, sometimes talking, sometimes observing.

I explained the concept of the nonanxious presence which I had learned from my teacher Bob Albers and that he learned from Rabbi Edwin Friedman: the idea that sometimes the best one can be is simply present to another, the eye of calm in the midst of physical or mental chaos, the person who has nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, no one else to see. Someone who is there completely and attentively for the person in chaos. I see my role during most periods of my time on the units as maintaining a presence, someone who is calmly there. I'm not bored at these times, even if nothing is going on. I'm just there in a relaxed state, my presence unnecessary in the sense that I'm "not needed" at these times but at the ready if I am needed.

For instance, on Monday I was at one unit having dinner with the boys there as usual and after I put my plate away one of them came up and asked, "Do you have time to talk with me?" I said of course, and we sat down in a little-used room and talked for the next half hour easily and casually about a very troubling subject. True, I do have some experience already with this kid. We've talked a little before, usually after he's had an explosive episode and I'm there to remind him he's in control of his emotions and actions despite what his mind tells him. But there was no indication he was feeling anxious, or no more so than usual, but he was underneath his stoic exterior. He was experiencing an anniversary of an especially traumatic event and admitted blaming himself for it happening. I explained to him, no matter what he'd been told or what he felt, he was not responsible for what happened (he was a victim of this trauma, not an actor in it) and if he wanted some sense of closure from it. He said he did but didn't think he'd experience it. We talked more and he confessed he didn't feel comfortable talking with his therapist about what he wanted from him, especially relating to his emotions about the trauma. I asked if he wanted the opportunity to talk with me before his next appointment (which is today) and he said, yes, and could I come in with him to the appointment? I said I would, if it was all right with his therapist.

The only reason he was comfortable, I think, approaching me in the first place to unburden himself and ask for help (he isn't someone with a reputation for nuance until after he's become violent and then it's only to say he'd wanted help before), is because I'm a known quantity to him, a relaxed resource he's come to see at about the same time every week, doing about the same things for about the same length of time, and not being hurried or impatient in them. I see myself as resting against a wall (sometimes literally) until I'm needed. I am a fire extinguisher.

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