Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Good-Bye 2013

As December 31 seems to come more and more often, and because I am naturally a sucker for any time to reminisce, tonight seems an appropriate time to put down my thoughts about the year that will soon to be part of our collective history: 2013.

Earlier today, I was thinking that the best way to describe 2013 would be as "annus horribilis" and in some ways that may be true, but overall, I would describe 2013 as the year that I learned A LOT about my professional-self.

Those of  you who are on our regular Christmas card list likely noticed that there was no "Sack Family Letter" included in this year's mailing. That was because there wasn't a lot to "brag" about this year, which is usually what those letters include. However, personally, this was a year that stretched me and challenged me professionally more than anything I had ever experienced before. Even though it may not be considered "successful" by some people, for me, it really was.

The general story is that in mid-May I left my position at Lutheran Social Services (where I had been since the start of my internship in 2010) for what I considered one of my "dream jobs"; at least it was certainly a population I wanted to work with SO badly that I applied and interviewed there for an internship position in 2010, but was told I was "third on the list with only two positions." The psychologist who gave me that news was someone I kept in regular contact with as I earned my training license and interviewed for any open position they had at the Wisconsin Resource Center. I was eventually hired there and started as a Psychological Associate on May 20, 2013.

If you've been following my blog and my Facebook posts, then you are already aware of what I considered a "high price" to work there: I was told to take down my blog posts about my experiences there, even though I had not violated any HIPAA rules. I was told to take down a "team photo" because some people who work at the WRC considered it an invasion of their personal privacy.  Although I considered it a violation of my first amendment rights, I complied. Apparently that was not enough because at the end of October, I was told that my Clinical Director and Unit Supervisor had serious concerns about my ability to work with the inmates on my unit and my apparent lack of boundaries with them.

When I began my position at WRC, I was still accumulating training hours toward the 3,000 hours I needed before applying for full licensure as a Professional Counselor with the state. During one of my weekly supervision sessions with the Clinical Director, he told me that he "dreaded every day" of his first year working at WRC. At the time he had spent approximately 26 years as a state employee. At the time I found comfort in his experience because I was experiencing something similar: I really didn't look forward to going to working there every day.  I was verbally abused by inmates on a regular basis that I wanted to provide therapy to. I was often yelled at from behind their steel cell doors, being called "a fat bitch" and "a useless bitch." I had inmates start to masturbate in my office while we were supposedly in a "therapy session." I was told by inmates that they "visualized" me while masturbating while trying to fall asleep the previous night. On more than one occasion I saw inmates from my unit in segregation who were naked in their cells and rubbing their penises while I was asking them questions to determine if they could be released from "observation status" and returned to the unit. I was a stranger in a strange land. I had absolutely no previous experience working in such a setting and I wasn't provided with a lot of professional help: I didn't observe anyone who experienced these scenarios to learn how to deal with them. I was sort of thrown into a "baptism by fire" setting and when I failed, I was held accountable. I can understand that. Without appearing to "whine" about it, I will say that my training with actual inmates was at best sub-par and overall sucked. Maybe I should have been more demanding in the training I needed. Maybe my supervisors should have picked up on my lack of opportunity to observe others in similar situations.  Who knows. Either way, I came to the decision that continuing to work at the WRC was like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole; it just wasn't a good fit. That was incredibly hard to me to admit. You see, I have this "perfectionist" trait where my brain tells me I can do anything if I just work hard enough and am good enough to succeed in ANY situation. That ran smack-dab up against my day-to-day work at the WRC. For the first time in a long time, I had to admit that this wasn't something I was good at. I had to acknowledge my limitations as a person and as a counselor. During grad school when other students admitted that they would have to refer a client out or that they couldn't see themselves working with a certain population, I thought, "Ha! I would never do that! I am invincible and I can do anything!" And after five months of working with maximum security male inmates, I admitted that I couldn't work with them. All of the experience and training and education in the world likely wouldn't make me successful in that setting. Maybe if I was on another unit I could have felt competent in the services I was providing, but that wasn't the circumstances I found myself in. So I swallowed a BIG dose of pride and left my "dream job" on November 1st.

I applied and interviewed for several counseling positions from that date until I was re-hired by LSS and started there on December 2nd. Previously I worked as the Older Adult Counselor at the Thompson Community Center and the Oshkosh Senior Center, plus providing outreach counseling to older adults in their homes. My current position is as a counselor that meets with adolescents in the schools they attend through a United Way supported program called PATH (Providing Access to Healing) where I see students in the school setting so they don't have to arrange transportation or insurance coverage in order to see a counselor. Currently I spend two days a week at a high school in Appleton, one day at a middle school in Appleton, and one day at a high school in Menasha. On Fridays I am in the LSS office completing case notes and various other administrative "stuff" that has to be completed for the students.

My very first graduate school class was "Intro to Counseling and Human Development" and I actually wrote a short paper on the population I felt least at ease with seeing: kids. At the time I thought that because I didn't have any children of my own, nor did I spend a lot of time with kids, that it was a population I couldn't relate to. However, during my year as an intern, I worked with many children and adolescents and learned that I didn't have to be afraid of them. They were and are just like any other client I may see: they want someone to help them sort out what's going on in their lives and they have a strong drive to live more full, active lives. Even though it's been just a bit less than a month that I started working with them, they have taught me more than I have taught them, of this I'm sure. Unlike maximum security prisoners, they want to overcome the obstacles in their lives, they want to be successful, and they work very hard to be so.  They have hope and so do I, which is something I didn't find at the WRC.

So that's basically what I've learned in 2013. It was sometimes painful, but in the end it allowed me to be who am I as a counselor and as a person.

Bring on 2014. I have a feeling that I'm ready.