A psychotherapist thinks out loud about Being Human, and stuff…

Religiosity

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”. (A prayer my grandmother taught me when I was about three years old, to be followed by the names of people I wanted God to “bless”.)

My people were not religious.

By “My people”, I mean the people who raised me- largely my maternal grandparents, Hal and Faye Coffey. I am told that my father, whom I never knew, was a devout Catholic, and my mother, who became a part of my life when I was a little older, became a Catholic when she married my second step-father. For awhile, what proved to be a half-hearted effort was made to convert (or at least introduce) me to Catholicism, but it failed to take. (Actually, that’s not entirely true. I was deeply impressed by the theatricality of the Catholic Mass- the old, “real” Mass, that is, with the “bell, book and candle”, and the Latin chanting and the incense and, especially, the guy up there in the blazingly white outfit, running the show. I suspect this led to a misbegotten first career as an actor, and a later stint as a middling Pagan Priest. Got to wear the robes, and everything!) But, I digress.

I spent my first ten years or so, in a home in which religion was simply absent. My people were not anti-religious; they were just areligious- the subject never came up. This is puzzling for several reasons. First, my grandparents both came from areas that could certainly be considered part of the “Bible Belt”: Alabama (on my grandmother’s side), and then the Oklahoma panhandle, before they married and came North to Nebraska early in the 20th Century. I visited that part of Oklahoma, several years ago and, honestly, if I had to live in such a brutally inhospitable land (speaking of the environment, not the people), I would, I’m sure, be a deeply devout believer in some kind of Deity, if only to give myself any edge I could.

Second, I’ve been told that my grandfather, several times removed, was a Methodist Circuit riding Preacher. This, of course, can work to either insure reverence on the part of descendants, or to insure it’s absence. Who knows? (Parenthetically, I’m also told- by my mother, just before her death- that I have a full-blood Cherokee back there; gender unknown. Since the Cherokee were centered around Alabama, before they were force-marched to Okalahoma, via the “Trail of Tears”, I’ll always wonder about that connection, and if it’s the reason my Grandmother’s family- the “Webbs” came West. My mother didn’t know, and she almost didn’t tell me at all. She said it had been the “family secret” all of her life, a shameful thing. She was still ashamed when she told me, which saddens me. Societal change almost caught up with her.)

So, yes; religion was oddly absent from a family that might have been expected to, at least, be “socially religious”- dressing up for church on Sundays, with a church supper and singing after, under the trees. I say “absent”, but that’s not entirely true. I have faint memories of some kind of “Grace” being said, before Sunday dinner (usually fried chicken- the best I have tasted, to this day), and my grandmother did teach me a little prayer to say, before I went to sleep, each night. I’ve quoted some of it, above. I feel her love whenever I say it, as I occasionally do, blessing her name.

That’s about it, though, and I have a few theories (absent access to anyone older than myself; somehow it’s come to be that there are very few people older than myself) about why that might have been.

First, my grandparents were survivors of the worst financial depression in American history. As I mentioned, they had left the land in Oklahoma before it turned to dust, but, starting in 1929, nearly everyone suffered to some extent. I gather they survived by dint of hard work- in fact, I might say that hard work, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was their religion. To work was to survive. Born in 1936, long before the coming of World War II changed everything, I learned quickly that work was more important, took precedent over absolutely everything else. It was a painful lesson that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to overcome.

Second- and I know this is reaching- my grandparents’ roots were in Scotland and Ireland. I don’t know when, or under what circumstances, they left (speaking here of my Mother’s side; my recently-found sister, Mary, can tell you every move our father’s side- also from Scotland- made, and when), but, somehow I doubt if the move was impulsive. More likely they were driven by desperation and despair; we do not leave the land of our birth idly. It’s well known that simply being a Celt will give one a spavined attitude about Deity, and I doubt my forebears were exceptions to the rule, whatever their professed religion at the time.

In any case, it seems my grandparents (or their parents; impossible to tell), somewhere along the line, jettisoned whatever faith they may have had in a benevolent deity and, lacking an acceptable alternative, just dropped the whole thing. Whether it was a gradual letting-go or a moment of epiphany, followed by a spiritual “Thud”, I have no way of knowing at this remove. but they never took it up again. My grandfather’s funeral was held under the auspices of the Benevolent Order of Elks, and my grandmother’s, I’m told, was similarly secular.

So. Given all of the above, it is a wonder to me- although perhaps it shouldn’t be- that I have spent my entire life searching for that which is “worshipful”. (The origins of the word “Worship” mean, “of worth”, or, “That which is worthy”.) The search has led me through some strange and wonderful places. For many years, as an actor and director, I worshiped at the altar of Dionysus- a sometimes fun, but always unpredictable god. I’ve worshiped Mommon, like most of us, and I’ve danced with Goddesses and their consorts, but, always, I’ve been looking for The Thing that “believers” of all stripes say they have- though I’m more inclined to believe those who say they have it sometimes, and that, imperfectly.

These are thoughts that lead me into realms of speculation that may call for another entry. For now, I’ve said what I set out to say about the curious (to me) lack of religious observance in my childhood. I need to think more about how this lack, in some way, led me to a lifetime of questioning. If I have any more to say about it, I’ll do a follow-up.

For now, thank you for reading this. I’m always interested in your feedback and questions. Remember, as Ram Dass once said, “We’re all just walking each other home”.

Happy Trails to you, and be well.    -Buff

 

 

 

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“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes- some have got broken- and carrying them up to the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, and the children got ready for school. There are enough left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week- not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, stayed up so late, attempted-quite unsuccessfully- to love all of our relatives, and in general grossly overestimated our powers.” 

W. H. Auden. “For The Time Being”.

It’s the first week of the New Year, and here in the San Francisco Bay Area we’re experiencing a welcome bout of gentle, soaking rain, falling from an endlessly grey sky.

My mood is just as grey. The holidays have come and gone like a great, honking clown parade, full of tubas and flung confetti, and now… what? What to do with ourselves in this Waiting Time- as we wait for the return of the light and warmth? Traditionally, it’s a time for digging in- for stories and warming drinks, for tending the fire and mending that which needs repair. These are mostly metaphors now. Our binge-watched stories come from Netflix and Google, our fire is purchased from our local gas and electric company, and our mending? What have we to repair?

Although we usually use it in the sense of “fixing” something broken, our word, “Repair” comes from the Late latin: repatriare- “To return; to go home again”, and that seems a perfect usage for this time of year: to return to ourselves.

Whole libraries have been written about this season being appropriate for self-reflection and meditation. There is something about the long, dark night that causes such thoughts, whether we will or not. Sometimes this is experienced as what’s called “Seasonal Affective Disorder”- moodiness, lethargy, mild depression- and pathologised, with various treatments suggested, but I think for many of us this is also about a disinclination to do what the Dark Time seems to demand: to go within, take stock, read the signs and see who you are at this point in time- to go home again.

Our culture, by and large, opposes self-reflection. Billions of dollars and person-hours have been spent to provide us with the largest array of distractions ever known to humanity, lest we fall into unhealthy brooding- and I have to make a distinction, here, between true depression, which is a serious condition, and simply feeling unhappy because we don’t know what to do with ourselves. What to do, while we’re waiting for the Light?

What I want to suggest is that you use this time to repair within yourself. What have you been putting off because you don’t have time, or because it seemed impractical or your friends wouldn’t understand- or, because it frightens you? Now, in these dark months, there’s time to turn to those thoughts and feelings, befriend them, learn their names, bring them into the light, perhaps imbue them life.

That’s what I’m doing, right now. For most of this year, encouraged by friends and readers, I’ve hovered on the edge of resuming this blog. I’ve struggled with the thoughts that I’m not smart enough, informed enough, literate enough (or that I’m merely clever), to write a blog post again. Ironically, I’m intimidated by my own earlier blogs, posted a few years ago. Jeez, that guy could write. He really had a way with words, and he had something to say. I wish I was… Oh, that’s right: I am that guy.

So, I’ve decided to Hell with it. I’m going to repair to my neglected writing persona, and perhaps repair my confidence. I’ve committed (since, clearly, waiting for inspirational lightning hasn’t worked), to sitting down every Friday afternoon and writing something. I’m not without ideas- in fact, I have a notebook full of them. I will do my best not to write about our cat, who is adequate as a cat, but, in truth, not all that interesting. As the column’s title suggests, I will try to write from the viewpoint of a mental health professional, but as a glance at my previous entries will attest, that can take me pretty far afield. You may have some curiosity about what a Psychotherapist does, and how we do it. I like demystifying that stuff; it actually helps me get clearer about what I do and writing about it was one of my original motivations for blogging.

In any case, here’s my first offering, in a year or two, and there’ll be more. I’ll appreciate any feedback or questions. Let’s get through his dark time together, and see what the spring brings. I’m hoping, at least, for a better season for the San Francisco Giants- but let’s leave that for another time.

Until we meet again, happy trails to you, and thanks for reading.

-Buff

 

 

 

“I think Heaven will be like a first kiss.” -Sarah Addison Allen, The Sugar Queen.

I would like to invite you to participate in what I hope will be an interesting experience for all.

For years, I have kept a personal Journal, and over the last few years I have entered several versions of what I’ve called “Visions of Heaven”. What I mean by this is not so much the traditional Heaven as described by most of the Western religions traditions, but, rather, “Heaven” in the sense of “Paradise”- that is, the best place you can imagine. What Henry James once called “The Great Good Place”, in his short story of that name.

What I invite you to do is imagine yourself in the best possible place you can think of. I would like you to be as specific as you can- to fill in details about what the place feels like. Where are you? What scents are carried on the breeze? What is the weather like? What textures and colors do you feel and see? Who else is there, if anyone is? What are you doing?

I would ask you to go beyond generalities, like “A world without hatred”, desirable as they may be, and selfishly, pleasurably put yourself in the picture of a perfect place, at a perfect time, dictated only by your need for absolute satisfaction and happiness.

I think you’ll find that, for a variety of reasons, this will not be as easy as it might, at first, appear. Most of us are taught what we should want, and it is difficult for us to allow ourselves to access (much less write down) what it would be like to be truly contented. The Puritanism that is one of the cornerstones of our country’s foundation views with suspicion most things relating to satisfaction, insisting that we must strive, always. In this exercise, we put striving aside (unless that is your idea of Heaven), and imagine Perfection. Make a deal with your ever-vigilant Critic: you’ll return to your every day tasks in a few minutes, and when you do, you’ll be better for this little time out. Happens to be true.

I think the best way to do this is to make some time and sit with it, like a meditation. Start with a general place and situation- a beach, a mountain top, a message table- and then, patiently, allow yourself to fill in details, as I’ve suggested above. Slow your breathing, and let your body relax into it. Remember that, since this is all about your imagination, you can change any detail at will, now or later. You’ll find that the closer you get to your ideal, the more relaxed you’ll feel. When we imagine ourselves as happy and contented, our mind and body come along for the ride. You’re actually (as a side effect) doing yourself some measurable good, as you sit and breath, think and feel.

What I hope you’ll do is try it, and, if you wish, share your experience, and your own “Good Place” with us all. To prime the pump, here is what feels (right now) like the best of the several visions I’ve imagined:

                                                                                         ***********************************************************

A Vision of Heaven

I am sitting on the veranda of a cabin, situated somewhere on the North Coast. The Pacific Ocean is a five minute walk away, down a little path to the left, and I can faintly hear the breakers, when the wind is right. It’s a warm day, in the 80s, but I’m shaded on the veranda, and the soft, gentle breeze, carrying the scent of dried grasses, is pleasant.

My chair is comfortable, and next to it is a table on which I’ve placed a plate containing a few chunks of nice cheese, some crackers, and some cured olives. There’s a bottle of some earthy California red wine, and a half filled glass, from which I sip, now and then. There’s also a little boom-box, carrying a Giants’ game; they’re in contention this August; one run up in the sixth inning of a great pitcher’s duel. The volume of the radio is turned down very low, so I can hear the breeze, as it moves the long grasses in the meadow the cabin overlooks.

I’m watching a redtail hawk, working the meadow. It’s been at it for the last ten minutes or so, gliding gracefully, scarcely moving its wings, from one end of the field to the other. There are what I suppose to be a couple of hawks roosting nearby, and they tend to work this field about this time every afternoon. attracted by the updraft from the sunwarmed earth.

I cut a piece of cheese, put it on a cracker, and wash it down with a sip of the wine: a perfect melding of tastes. It would be nice to go inside and take an afternoon nap, but the game is too close, and I want to see how it comes out, so I sit and watch the hawk (who will move on to another field soon, if he doesn’t turn up a mouse), and think drowsy thoughts. After my nap, I’ll probably walk down to the beach, to watch the sun set. For now, there’s nothing to do but feel the pleasure of complete relaxation and contentment, watching the hawk and hoping the game doesn’t go into extra innings- although, that would be nice, too.

                                                                                ************************************************************************

-So, that’s what I mean. Just a moment, a perfect moment in time, in the most perfect setting you can imagine. I’m alone in mine, but yours may be populated with anyone (or anything) you choose. The fun of the exercise is the process of building the moment, bit by bit, trying this and discarding that, until you have achieved what feels like perfect satisfaction. That may change, as you revisit it. That’s fine; let it. It will grow more and more real for you with passing time, as you add details and spend time there.

You can, of course, return to this place, this Good Place, as often as you wish, whenever opportunity presents itself. It is your place. No one can find fault with it, or modify it in any way; it is entirely yours. You may find yourself imagining unpleasant things that could happen there. When that happens, remember that you have complete control; nothing happens there that you do not create.

If you choose to take some time to do this, I hope you will share it with us. I’d love to hear not just what your vision is, but also what the experience of creating it was like for you. Whether or not you share it, I hope you take the time, and that the experience is a good one. It may tell you some things about yourself and, who knows, it may even give you some ideas for how you can make changes in the physical world you come back to. That’ll be up to you.

In the meantime, I wish you Happy Trails (the happiest you can imagine), Buckeroos, and be sure and write!

I don’t like GPS systems.

GPS systems tell you, in the dulcet tones of your choice, one thing: how to get from where you are to where you’re going. If you don’t think about it much, that sounds like all that needs be said. We don’t get lost, we don’t waste time, we achieve our goal, which is to get there, right?

Perhaps.

But, there are goals and there are goals, and in a larger sense, being instructed only in how to get to a specific point robs us of much useful experience. For Example, what lies beyond my path? What interesting things and experiences lie a half mile from the route I’m following? What interesting options exist that, were I looking at a map, I might find attractive? What sudden flights of fancy never take wing, because I am unaware of a park or building or geological feature that a map would show me, just off the (usually) certain path dictated by my GPS? I don’t know, and I probably never will know, unless I’ve looked at a map of the area, and maps (I’m told) are becoming things of the past. People are forgetting (or never learning) how to read them, how to orient themselves to the area, thus reducing themselves to a pathetic level of helplessness, should their electronics fail, or mislead them.

Let me go further: what’s the matter with getting lost? Sure, as we’re told, all who wander are not lost, but how about the experience of getting lost and finding your way back? Rick Steves, the travel guru, speaking of Venice, recommends that visitors deliberately allow themselves to get lost, because that’s how unexpected, frequently wonderful, things happen. The same can be said of any geographical location: it’s the unexpected experiences that give us stories we’ll tell for years, and GPS is the enemy of the unexpected. In fact, that’s its purpose. It’s for the goal oriented, single minded person who cares little for his location in any larger sense than the street or road he’s traveling- for another quarter of a mile, then he will turn left onto another street he knows nothing about, a street about which he will experience little and learn nothing because he has eyes only for the signs that correspond to his instructions.

Our GPS creates a tiny bubble in which we move, like a horse with blinders (Google it, kids), deliberately unaware of the interesting, sometimes unforgettable possibilities surrounding us, just beyond the little path dictated by the voice of our GPS.

The solution? Next time you are going someplace, dig up a map of the area- the city or state through which you intend to drive. Learn (or remember) how to find your destination on the map, and then look at the map to see how to get there. I will bet you a modest amount of cash money that you’ll discover something interesting, off what would have been your path, that might be worth a side trip.

Even if I lose my bet, you will have used your brain, your cognitive, problem solving skills, to find your way, rather than letting a machine decide what’s best for you, and that seems to me to be a good thing. I’m not a Luddite, but it seems to me there is such a thing as becoming too dependent on the damned things. If you can’t find your way from where you are to where you want to be, you’ve given away too much, or so I believe. Take it back, before you start seeing maps in antique stores, sold as curiosities that no one any longer knows how to use.

Thus endeth the sermon. If you have anything to say about it, I’d love to hear from you.

In any case, Buckeroos, be kind to one another, and I wish you happy, interesting and, above all, self-determined trails.

Sometime after I achieved adulthood, a few years ago, I came to realize that there are some propositions that do not need refuting- that is, there is no profit in debating them, because they are so self-evidently wrong headed that debate is unnecessary. The assertion that some races (or genders) are inferior and, therefore, fit only for slavery doesn’t need to take up our time, and I don’t think the belief that our planet is only six (or ten) thousand years old (based, as it is, on faith, impervious to reason) needs to be given room in any conversation of which I want to be a part.

The more I think about “The Abolitionist Project” (see my previous posting for details), the more I feel it fits into this category. Raising objections, points with which to refute their premise- that a world without physical or psychological pain is desirable and attainable- seems like cheering one’s own pitching skills, because I am able to hit the side of a barn with a tennis ball; the difficulty lies in supporting the suggestion that such a state of existence would be desirable, not in refuting it.

I’m experiencing, in this cold, wet weather, some uncomfortable joint pain. Further, throughout most of my life, I have been given, infrequently, to bouts of depression- black moods, lasting a few days, in which nothing seems worthwhile and (as the DSM blandly puts it) I find no enjoyment in what are usually pleasurable activities. Now, what fault can be found with the introduction of a world from which such unpleasurable experiences are banned? Is not such a world, rather, a highly desirable thing?

I don’t think so. I am not fond of even mild suffering (and I should admit that in my long, and so far blessed life, I have never experienced the level of physical or psychological pain that life is capable of throwing at us), but, in the case of my physical pain, it is functional: like a toothache, if the pain reaches a certain level, I will hie myself to a Doctor and explore its causes. It may prove to be something that must simply be borne, but…maybe not. It may be that my body is trying to alert me to a situation for which there is a remedy, without which it will worsen. In such a case, I will have my pain to thank. Until we become entirely bionic (which I gather is part of the Hedonist’s vision), we need the warning system that is our pain; we, literally, cannot live without it.

The benefits of psychological pain are more subtle, but no less compelling. In my opening piece on this subject, I quoted Carl Jung, who said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”. Catchy, but what is meant by “legitimate suffering”, and what is its value?

I’m wading into very deep waters, here, in which pool I sense far greater minds than mine, but I’m willing to say, for the sake of our argument, that “legitimate” suffering is that unavoidable pain which comes with the condition of being human. The question of whether it is desirable is irrelevant. Shame, loss of love, fear of change and death- these, and a host of others, depending on our environment, are unavoidable and survivable. They come with the territory. Fine, but what makes them desirable?

Answering that question only raises a further, larger question- but, one thing at a time. I am content with noting that, as my friend, Allen Young pointed out, we learn and grow because of pain. Pleasure plays a large part, too, but our life’s avoidable pain tends to act as a “herding agent”: we move away from the source of pain, toward relief. So, we learn, most of us, what causes us to be accepted by our society or our family, and, painfully, what does not. We learn not to pick up a hot pan with our bare hands. We learn to look where we’re walking and to read the label on the bottle. Pain teaches these things. “Experience is a dear teacher”, wrote Ben Franklin, “but a fool will learn from no other”. Unhappily, I suppose, we are all fools, in one way or another. Painful experience can remedy that, too.

I’m grateful to Allen, too, for pointing out a further benefit: If pain is banished, what becomes of compassion? Of what use is empathy, and the exercise of that heart’s opening which relieves suffering and allows us to grow as human beings? Certainly, we can share another’s happiness, but is this experience as essential to our Spiritual Growth, as experiencing compassion, and forgiveness?

I can’t answer that question; I only know that any definition of humanity to which I subscribe includes “suffering” as an essential ingredient- and, yes, it finally comes down to this: if you remove physical and psychological pain, you redefine what it means to be human. Machines, so far, do not suffer; that is their advantage, such as it is. Human beings do; such as it is, that is our advantage. I am comforted by my belief that this fact cannot be changed, and I feel- yes- compassion, for those who would deprive us of that which defines us in so many ways.

I feel compassion, yes, but I do not wish them luck in their endeavor. Quite the contrary: I gift them, if I may, with the pain of frustration and disillusionment. My wish may return to me threefold, but, in this case, it will be worth it.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments, and thank you for your continuing support and interest.

Until we meet again, Buckeroos, happy trails to you!

The Hedonistic Imperative

A, probably apocryphal, story is told about the composer, Phillip Glass. He was invited to the premier of a friend’s symphonic work which, according to the program note, was dedicated to the cause of reducing the world’s suffering.

After the concert, his friend asked him how he had liked it, and Glass said that, while he had liked the music very much, he had to disagree with the dedication. “Why”, his friend said, “don’t you think there is too much suffering in the world? “No”, glass replied. “I think there is exactly the right amount.”

In his “Collected Works”, Carl Jung wrote, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering”, and, of course, “Life is suffering” is the first of the “Four Noble Truths” taught by the Buddha. Recently, it has been suggested that the word translated into “suffering”, in English, might better be understood to mean “dissatisfaction”, or “unease”. I’ll leave that one to the linguistic experts. For now, let’s go with defining it simply as something unpleasant that we would prefer to avoid, somewhere between the tribulations of Job and learning that the movie you’ve been standing in line to see is sold out, okay?

Recently, the ever rushing stream of internet information washed up, at my feet, news of something called “The Hedonistic Imperative”. (Here is a link to their web site: http://www.hedweb.com/) We are told, at the git-go, that the purpose of what they are calling “The Abolitionist Project” is to abolish suffering in all sentient life, through genetic engineering and nanotechnology. Lest we misunderstand, they go on to say that their intention is to “banish” all psychological pain, in the way that, they say, all physical pain has been banished by our medical advances, ushering in…. well, I’ll let them say it: “States of sublime well-being….destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world’s last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.”

Got that?

I have to admit, I’m having an almost visceral response, here, not unlike, well….fear. Certainly far from the amusement (not to say cat calls) that such an assertion should call forth. When I unpack the feeling, it comes down to something like this: They are working toward the end of Humanity. These people are quite seriously suggesting the replacement of an irreplaceable part of the Human Condition with “heritable gradients of bliss”- nothing else. No, I mean, nothing else. No psychological pain of any kind. Nothing but varying levels of bliss, as our experiential baseline- if the word has any meaning, in this context.

Goddess help me; where to start?

I’m going to let this percolate, for awhile, in us both. I’ll be back with some thoughts about it, when my vitals have dropped to something like normal. In the meantime, what does this project, about which (I need to keep repeating to myself), they are quite serious, bring up in you? If such a thing could be accomplished, would it be a good thing? I’ve made it clear already that I don’t think so, but that’s just me. Let’s talk about this, some.

I’ll be back, soon. In the meantime, Buckeroos, don’t take any wooden nickles and Happy Trails to you!

Bring It Up On Thursday

In the early 90’s I had the great, good fortune to be a clinical staff member of what was, at the time, the best residential treatment program in the San Francisco mental health system. I’ll skip the name for now, but those of you who have worked in The City’s system over the last few decades will have a pretty good idea of the identity of the program I’m describing. It exists now in name only, and I still grieve its passing.

This was a large facility, located in a multistoried, ex-apartment building near downtown. It housed about a hundred residents, and another hundred and fifty came from all over the city for “Day Treatment”- group and individual therapy, case management, med assessment and monitoring, 12 step recovery groups and more. We were a subsidiary of a large hospital, who sent us a steady stream of people from their ER and Psych Ward, once they were stabilized. We specialized in what was called, at the time, “dual diagnosis” cases: serious mental illness and addictions of all kinds; mostly alcohol and drugs. Very busy, bustling place, with nary a dull, or free moment. Stressful, exciting, rewarding, harrowing. Some of the best training- experiential and otherwise, that I could possibly have received.

In any workplace, especially a place as demanding as this, there are bound to be problems. Our clients had problems, why shouldn’t we? I have worked in unhappy programs where the unavoidable stress was channeled into interpersonal wars- back biting, office politics, factions- and, people, don’t think for a minute that therapists are immune to such things. Pound for pound, we are probably the most unstable bunch of people you’ll ever want to meet. What do you think drew us to this profession? (I hasten to add, of course, that the therapists who are my friends and co-workers are the exception to this rule- all of you. Okay?)

But, I digress, as usual.

This program, as exhausting and demanding as it was, was also one of the happiest, most harmonious environments I’ve ever experienced. We respected ourselves and each other, as we respected our residents and day treatment clients. We were patient and forgiving with each other. We laughed a lot during the day and at day’s end we looked forward to coming back tomorrow- at least, I did. Above all, we were proud to be a part of that program. We were the best in The City, and we knew it.

There were lots of reasons our program worked: the Director was an excellent clinician and a downright decent, authentic person. The large admin staff treated us like slightly addled children and that worked, somehow, probably because that’s how we felt a good deal of the time. The most important thing, though, was what happened on Thursday afternoons. That’s what I want to tell you about.

Every Thursday, at three o’clock, every staff member who could possibly attend- clinical or otherwise, manager and managed, filed into a room, coffee in hand and sat down. The door was locked behind us. Then, we sat in silence until someone had something to say. The rules were simple- basic communication skills we teach our clients: use “I” statements, don’t interrupt, treat each other with the respect you expect to be given. Beyond that, anything could be said to anyone in the room, unless they expressed an unwillingness to hear it, in which case, they were encouraged to make a later date to work out whatever the issue was. This happened rarely. It was, in a word, beautiful. People expressed gratitude for favors and acts of kindness. People expressed fear, anger and resentment. Sometimes it was nonverbal, someone just reaching out and taking another’s hand for a moment, or putting a comforting hand on a shoulder. Hugs were frequent. Sometimes we just sat in silence for long periods. The rule was, we stayed until the hour was over, whatever happened. With the exception of a couple of emergencies, I never saw that rule broken. We all knew how important this was to the maintenance of what we had.

The effect of this hour on the other thirty-nine was amazing. Griping was nearly non-existent. If someone began to complain about something that had to do with the program or a fellow worker, she would commonly be told, “Bring it up on Thursday”. We learned, all through the week, to remember something that we wanted to bring up in the meeting- something tough for which we wanted our peer’s support, or something good that we wanted to share with the others. Even better, we learned to take chances during the rest of the week, not waiting for the safe space of the Staff Meeting. It was not Heaven. Some people handled it better than others and, generally, staff members who didn’t use (or attend) the meetings didn’t last long but, unlike most busy, high stress programs in the field, we had very little turnover. We knew the value of what we had and were determined to protect it.

I offer this experience to you, to make of it what you will. Perhaps, if you are ever offered the opportunity to create a program or a community of any kind,  you’ll remember what a powerful tool it can be to feel safe and supported among your fellows.

Though we were safe with each other, we hadn’t the power to be safe from the larger world. Only a year after I began to work there the hospital, citing financial difficulties, felt the need to divest itself of our program and we were cut loose. We talked of running it as a Collective, but couldn’t find the funding that would have made that possible. Six months later, our program was bought up by a large, well funded mental health organization. The first thing they did was fire us all, (after assuring us for three months that there would be “no changes”), offering us the opportunity to interview for our old jobs. Very few of us were rehired, and those who stayed had to agree to take a significant pay cut, in line with the lower amount the new owners intended to pay their staff. We had seen, loved and worked for an effective, respected mental health program. They saw a cash cow.

The first thing that went, I’m told, was the Thursday afternoon staff meeting.

Thank you for coming by. As always, I cherish and encourage your comments and stories. Until our paths cross again, be well and live fearlessly. Why the hell not?

Happy Trails to you, Buckaroos!