Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mental Health Inside the Walls: Resignation

Having never worked in a prison, when I began my career at my former employer on 05-20-13, I didn't know what to expect. I was excited and ready to begin working with inmates in a therapeutic way; building rapport, identifying their issues, drawing on past experiences inmates could provide where they acted appropriately, managed their emotions, and made effective decisions.  I wanted to use various therapeutic interventions to help inmates develop whatever it was in their lives that they lacked – challenging distorted thinking, processing emotions, building self-esteem, working through past traumas, all in a supportive, safe environment.

That is not the type of therapy practiced where I formerly worked. In fact, I had been told multiple times that “there is no therapy (on the block where I worked)” which likely makes the block function better to provide the structure it does.

I, however, am not the type of counselor who can walk into an interaction with a client with the direction to “never trust an inmate” who is, for all intents and purposes, my client, shading the entire session. Maybe it’s inexperience or maybe it’s naiveté that prevents me from entering and maintaining that mindset for 8 hours. Or, maybe it’s believing in the intrinsic good in people, having both compassion and empathy for my clients and letting my clients know that.

I will be the first to admit that I am an open and out-going person.  I like to get to know my clients to better put whatever it is that they came to see me about into context. Outside of therapy, I am opinionated, loud and generally always include my input in any discussion. Those may not be traits for a successful counselor in this environment, but they have served me well up to this point.

I am a damn good counselor. That much I know is true. I professionally relish in participating in sessions with clients that move forward, that don’t rehash the same topics and complaints again and again, where even if progress is painful, it’s still progress.  I don’t believe that this type of therapy is what’s needed in my former role. Which is neither good nor bad, it’s just a difference between who I am and what is needed to fulfill that role.

I am slowly gaining what I believe is a sense of relief since being informed that my tenure there has ended.  Although I found it comforting when a psychologist once told me that he hated every day of his first year of work there, I don’t want to hate coming to work every day. I don’t want to work in an environment where I am routinely called a “fucking bitch” or a “fat bitch” or any other of the numerous insults I have endured while working there. I don’t want to work in an environment where men do walk around in their cells naked and that I need to be prepared to deal with that. That is a skill set I don’t currently posses, nor do I think I ever want to.

I have learned more about myself as a professional counselor and as a person in my short tenure there, and I am grateful for that. Sometimes in order to discover what one does want in life, one has to first discover what one doesn’t want. I’m still academically and intellectually intrigued by the experience of incarceration on people and the role of psychopathy development in people, especially those with a lengthy history of personal trauma, however I am now much more aware that these are my academic and research interests, not necessarily my employment interests.

"Some birds just aren't meant to caged; their feathers are just too bright. And when you set them free, your soul rejoices because they never should have been caged in the first place." 

I am no longer caged.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Halloween Memories

I love Halloween. It's my second favorite holiday closely followed by Christmas. I think part of it has to do with summer fading into fall and seeing the majesty of Mother Nature work her magic and change the summer leaves of Kelly green to rich burgundy, bright gold and deep, blood red. Sometimes in Wisconsin the weather jumps from late-winter into late-spring/early-summer without much of an official "spring" in between, but autumn always takes its time; changing shades layer by layer until the green is gone, the dazzling hues fill the woods, neighborhoods, and yards and eventually the trees retract their sap and the leaves are forced to wither and fall, all in preparation for the glorious burst of budding branches we wait so patiently for through winter.
Autumn is a period of transition in nature, and it's often been a transitional time in my life. I started my college career in the fall of 1989 at UW-Madison. Many years later, I left my first husband during the fall of 1994 and began a relationship with another man that would influence the direction my life would take for many years to come. My first serious attempt at recovery began in the fall of 1996 and I sustained that for the next four years. On October 1, 2002, I moved from Milwaukee back to Appleton, which was a major life-shift that has resounded for me daily since. I married Mark on September 30, 2005, and our wedding photos show just a hint of the approaching autumn.
I love decorating for any holiday, but besides Christmas, Halloween is my favorite.  One year I handed out candy to trick-or-treaters dressed as a shower curtain. I have one of those plastic door covers that I place over our front door every year that has a skeleton with big red eyes on it. It comes with a battery pack & button that when pushed, makes the eyes of the skeleton blink and emits a creepy sound.  I love it. I wait until neighborhood kids are just about to our front door, hit the button and scare the crap out of them. On some Halloween in the future, I envision myself dressed as a scarecrow sitting in a lawn chair on our front porch, only to move and emit scary sounds when kids walk up the porch toward our front door. I can't help myself. Halloween should be scary and exciting and a bit nerve-racking. Over the years it has lost its luster of the unknown by offering tick-or-treating at the mall and hospitals offering free x-rays of the collected candy to make sure there are no pins or needles in the treats received from strangers. I can understand the comfort a candy-x-ray provides, but that's not how it was when I was a kid. I will be the first to admit that when I was at the pinnacle of my trick-or-treating years, there weren't sociopaths jamming pins and needles into mini candy bars, so the fear of the actual loot taken in was low, however, walking down neighborhood streets which appeared innocuous during daylight became scary enough when walking through them in the dark, with a flashlight as our only lighthouse beacon.
I remember Halloween being so cold that my parents would buy plastic (likely flammable) costumes for me and my sister and brother that were big enough to fit over our snowsuits. I'm not kidding; one year I went as Fred Flintstone and my sister was Barney Rubble (why we weren't Wilma and Betty is an entirely other discussion) and those costumes with the plastic-like masks that wrapped around the backs of our heads with a single elastic sting were two sizes too big in order to fit over our snowmobile suits. It was our father that roamed the neighborhood with us, carrying the flashlight, consoling us when we got apples or a nickel instead of actual candy. It was always a bit of a thrill to see another flashlight bobbing down the block, heading toward us, wondering if it was friend or foe. That, my friends, is the memory kids should have of trick-or-treating.
When I lived off campus in Boston, apparently the Dorchester neighborhood where I lived was too dangerous to trick-or-treat in, because I have no memories of youngsters ringing my doorbell, yelling, "Trick or treat!"
When I moved to Milwaukee, however, I was disturbingly surprised by the trick-or-treat process. First, trick-or-treating doesn't happen on the evening of Halloween; it's either the Sunday afternoon before or after Halloween for safety concerns. From the living room windows of my first apartment there I saw shotty mini-vans drop off large groups of kids (and I use that term liberally, many of them appeared to be well into high school) who had no costumes, no masks, but only a pillow case in which to collect their treats. These kids were so intimidating, I wouldn't dare think of challenging them for a trick, instead. They weren't local neighborhood kids and, quite frankly, I think their idea of a "trick" would've been to pull a weapon of some sort.
So come this Thursday (Halloween!) I will offer the tots of my neighborhood a variety of cavity-causing treats. I will be dressed in very conservative costume-like attire (dictated this year by my employer), but I will push that small red button that causes the eyes of the skeleton on my front door to blink & emit that creepy sound, because it is, after all, still Halloween.