A Career or a Life? (Part 1)

I’ve been in the social work field since May 2001, nearly 16 years. In that time I have worked in schools, community health centers, hospitals, a dialysis clinic, private practice, and with a hospice (my current j0b). I am an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) in Illinois and Missouri and have the National Association of Social Work’s ACHP (Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Social Worker) and CSW-G (Clinical Social Worker in Gerontology) certifications. I’ve also worked in the substance abuse community for the past 18 years.

I list my credentials and experience not to impress anyone, but to make a point–if you do anything for long enough, you can gather extra letters behind your name and become an “expert” in your field. The truth is that I never set out to become a social worker and didn’t know when I was an undergraduate that half of the jobs I would come to have even existed. So how did I get here?

Going back to school was a desperation move. I had already flunked or dropped out of three colleges (St. Louis University, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and Southwestern Illinois College) by the time I was 22 (I had actually flunked out of SLU twice!) and was working a pretty lame job as a delivery person. I was in the restaurant one day, between delivery runs, and I happened to be paying close attention to one of my coworkers, a man in his fifties. While he seemed to be a nice, happy guy, watching him that day gave me a vision of myself being stuck in one menial job or another for the rest of my life. I vowed that I would go back to school and finish my education, although I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I was provided with a very specific direction within the next few months by none other than God himself–Morgan Freeman.

To be continued…

A New Project.

I’ve long wanted to write something more long-form regarding my experiences as an alcoholic and an addict, both inside and outside of recovery. I have had reservations as I do not want to identify myself as a member of any particular recovery group, but have finally decided to begin work on this project. I will do my best to maintain anonymity and integrity of all persons and subjects included. The only exceptions will be if they have given me permission and, even then, I will include only first name and last initial. Although this will eventually be a lengthy volume, I plan to post ideas as I work on them a bit at a time. It may take me some time to work out a plan as this will be rather involved, but I hope to have something concrete soon.

Peace,

Christopher

anxiety.

Anxiety is awful. You know that feeling, like your stomach is being sandpapered from the inside out, your mind is racing, and you’re sure something dreadful is about to happen? Most of us have experienced this at some point or another. Imagine that you find it nearly impossible to relax because, as soon as your mind is not distracted by something, this feeling creeps in like the bogeyman being released from the closet. Anxiety is a smothering, black cloud that envelops and suffocates you, draining your energy and vitality and seriously impairing your ability to relate to others. I should know. I’ve been dealing with it in some form or another for most of my life.

There are many coping mechanisms I’ve learned in the past twenty years, but there are still times when none of them seem to work and I still have to tough it out. Talking about it is helpful, especially when I have the opportunity to help someone else that is going through something similar.

My purpose in posting this is to address the prevalence of anxiety in modern society and the sorely lacking resources to successfully cope. Most of us work stressful jobs, struggle to have enough time for things, try to balance family with work and other relationships, and are constantly barraged with media messages that we should either be doing more or that we are somehow inadequate. Many people silently suffer with anxiety and/or its sinister cousin, depression, and have sadly accepted it as an inevitable presence in their lives. If you are one of these people, please find someone to talk with. I’m not saying that you need to go see a counselor, but talk to a friend or relative that will be understanding and non-judgmental. You might find that you are less alone than you feel. If your anxiety is severe, counseling might be a good option. Most of the people that seek counseling do so for temporary problems that can be resolved. Feel free to contact me at ubersocialworker@gmail.com for any resources.

Peace,

Christopher

A Room Outside of Time

That day started out like most others. I got into my office/car, slammed some espresso, and headed toward St. Louis to see some patients. First on the roster were two patients at a nursing home in Dogtown, one that I barely knew and one that had changed my whole perception of the world. As I entered Muriel’s room, it was obvious that things had taken a sharp decline since I last saw her two weeks previously. I was still choked up as it had been been exceedingly difficult to accept the inevitable–my friend had slipped into the foggy, grey area where life and death mingle and court one another, slyly negotiating until the baton is passed and the next leg of the relay begins.

Here are the facts–the room was much hotter than I’d expected and the shades were pulled shut, signs that she had neither the will nor the need to complain about such trivial, earthly matters. Her right eye (the “good” one) managed to open just briefly, but long enough for her to register that it was me and to prompt a heartbreaking smile to her tired face. There is something incomprehensibly endearing and awe-inspiring to have someone that is in such an utterly profound place of introspection tinged with unimaginable mental and physical weariness actually expend a measure of their precious energy to let you know they are glad to see you. Muriel was more than one of my patients–she was a fellow traveler and a true friend.

Born an underprivileged black woman in an era when it was even more difficult to be, Muriel decided early on that she would not participate in many of the foolish and unnecessary insecurities and fears that plagued most of the rest of us. She would tell me upon our first few visits that she had read one book that had freed her, had taught her how to understand people, how to deal with them, and how to maintain her own dignity and self-confidence. That book was “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. I promised her I would purchase it and read it. I did so and strongly recommend it to anyone that knows how to read and wants to participate more successfully in society. For this reason alone I am greatly indebted to her, but her easy persuasion in this matter was insignificant compared to the peace and joy she brought to my life. When I first met her she was living on the 26th floor of a subsidized senior-living apartment building that I had driven past hundreds of times and had never even known was filled with residents. She was nearly bed-bound and only got up to use the restroom, to shower, and to change her clothes. Because of this she would leave the door to her apartment unlocked for visitors, and it was also because of this that I walked in on her fully naked in the process of changing her clothes one day. Far from being horrified, she just cackled hysterically and apologized profusely that I “had to see that old body”. That is just the way she was, always thinking about the other person. When the time came that her cancer had maliciously rendered her completely unable to care for herself, she refused to allow her son to bring a television or radio to the nursing home lest he have to return and pick it up after she had passed. Several years before she had required a routine eye operation that was botched by an inexperienced surgeon. After several more surgeries failed to correct the damage incurred during the first attempt, Muriel not only decided to accept the fact that her eye would never be the same, but she insisted that the surgeon receive no reprimand severe enough to permanently affect his career. Her capacity for forgiveness was astonishing.

I usually scheduled our appointments for late afternoon on Fridays as our visits were much-needed and welcome unwinding sessions after long weeks. Sitting next to her bedside, discussing the absurdities of being human on this planet, I reveled in my good fortune to have become a part of this woman’s life. Even after she moved to the nursing home her needs were few and her wants were nearly non-existent. The one thing she requested was a bird feeder to place outside her window so she could observe the behavior of the various birds she would often hear, but would usually not venture low enough to be visible from the bed of her first-floor room. About a week after installing the feeder, she excitedly told me about all of the drama unfolding around it. Furious territorial disputes were being waged. An errant woodpecker had taken to the feeder, which prompted her to laugh and state that he must have forgotten that he should have been pecking on trees. Love was in the Spring air and a pair of mating cardinals were her favorites. Muriel noticed the things that completely escaped the other residents that flocked out onto the patio next to her feeder every two hours, like clockwork, to smoke cigarettes and complain about the weather. Her outlook on life was full of compassion, empathy, enthusiasm, and curiosity, and not even her cancer could rob her of her grace and dignity. That day I saw the most beautiful smile on her face as she awoke from a comfortable slumber and mumbled something unintelligible to me. I believe she was surprised to see that I had sat next her bed the whole time she was asleep (approximately 45 minutes). Truthfully, I was in the midst of a deep, existential meditation brought on by pondering her condition. It occurred to me that there are moments in life when not even a force as powerful and all-pervasive as time itself can creep in and disturb something magical. We existed together in that room apart from the laws of physics and logic. It was a place that could only be described as sacred if it must be described by something as woefully inadequate as a word. I saw myself in her and her in myself, no separation except that thin, deceptive veil created by illusion born of ignorance and spiritual-blindness. It struck me that what was created there by circumstance was actually a refuge, a sanctuary that made far more sense than the madness and randomness going on outside in the world. An innately natural process was unfolding, albeit one that was heart-wrenching and that would ultimately rob me of the companionship of my friend. As I squeezed her hand and said goodbye, I told her that we would see each other again. We both knew that it was not true. I might see her, but by that time (within the next day or two) she would have lost all consciousness and one of the true earthly treasures I had ever encountered would be passing on into the Great Unknown. It sounds odd to say that I loved her–after all, she was a patient. But that’s the beautiful thing about hospice. When I worked in mental health, there were very strict boundaries you did not cross, and for a good reason. There you were dealing with clients from an inherent position of power, helping them face problems brought on by mental illness or their inability to cope with events beyond their control. With Muriel, there was no reason to keep up my defenses. She was the most kind, non-pathological being that I have had the pleasure to have encountered. If anything, I would hope to have not negatively affected her in any way. But I know that’s not possible, she wouldn’t stand for it. And so my eyes are a little watery tonight (I’m not a crier) as I think about the unlikeliest duo that ever shared some wonderful and interesting late Friday afternoons helping one another to figure out how to deal with whatever comes down the pike. Here’s to Muriel, my true friend.

Stay Gold.

If you’re about to make fun of me for proudly professing my love of the song “Stay Gold” by Stevie Wonder, you certainly wouldn’t be the first. I get very nostalgic about music and what it has meant to me at different times in my life, so it makes sense that this particular song sticks with me. I remember first hearing it play over the opening credits of “The Outsiders” when I was ten years old. I didn’t understand its significance or message at the time, only that it vaguely had something to do with the movie. Many people jokingly say, “Stay gold, Ponyboy” or “Let’s do it for Johnny,” as if those are throwaway joke lines. Please allow me to explain my love for this song and film.

The Greasers, while representing the kids from the wrong side of the tracks, are an extremely tight pack that stick together like family. They revel in their youth and live for the moment. Like most groups of friends, there are different types that serve certain functions. Ponyboy is the sensitive dreamer that tragically lost his parents. Johnny is the quintessential abused and neglected child, nervous and perpetually twitchy from his experiences at home. Dallas is the hard ass that shows no weakness and absolutely takes no shit from anyone. Sodapop is the one that doesn’t quite fit in with the others, the one that might grow up and get out of the neighborhood. Darryl is the older brother that sacrificed becoming a Soc to raise his two younger brothers following the death of their parents. Two-bit is the relentless smart ass and jester that, at the end of the day, cares very deeply about those weaker than him. I can see bits of my childhood friends in these different characters.

The message of the movie can be summed up by the song’s title. Ponyboy is obsessed with Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” thus setting the film’s theme. He is philosophical in his outlook upon life and understands the value of youth with an insight beyond his years and upbringing. He knows that to be young is to be innocent and pure, to view the world through fresh eyes, and that to grow up is to become conditioned and jaded by life. He never wants to lose his childlike wonder, but understands that things will eventually cause him to do so (as the film bears out in the end). While hiding out in an abandoned church following the self-defense murder of an opposing gang member, Johnny dies the ironic death of a hero after his daring rescue of a group of schoolchildren trapped in a fire. Dallas then dies a villain after pointing a gun at police, delirious from grief over losing Johnny. Johnny remains optimistic as he dies, telling Ponyboy to “stay gold.” But Ponyboy has witnessed firsthand how Johnny’s nobility directly caused his death and has suffered yet another unfair loss. No one is saved.

I think about the actors in a movie that is now 32 years old. Patrick Swayze was the King of Awesome, starring in such gems as “Dirty Dancing,” “Roadhouse,” “Point Break,” “Ghost,” and “Donnie Darko”. He was an enormous presence in my experience of movies (which is considerable) and is now deceased from pancreatic cancer. Rob Lowe hawks Direct TV. Emilio Estevez coached the Mighty Ducks. C. Thomas Howell is C-List. Ralph Macchio was the Karate Kid and starred in “My Cousin Vinnie” before falling off the map. Tom Cruise, having played the minor role of Steve Randle, is now the biggest movie star on the planet and the personal reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard’s prolapsed rectum. The group scattered, just like most cliques of young friends. I’m reminded of Richard Dreyfuss’s superb line at the end of “Stand By Me” where he types “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Fucking brilliant.

I remember sneaking out at night with my brother and Joe, running around the neighborhood and causing trouble. Spending the night at Matt’s and taking Vivarin to avoid sleep while we walked across town at 2:00am, dodging cars and hoping the girl we were going to visit would be awake. Or crashing at Jeff’s and playing pool and Nintendo, having to be extra careful if we wanted to leave because he was the one friend whose house had an alarm. Smoking cigarettes on Harmony’s nature trail with Joe, Matt, and Chris, learning to inhale and knowing that it was so fucking cool. Sneaking alcohol whenever we had the chance. Building tree houses. Playing “Ghost in the Graveyard.” Riding bikes all over town. Making the undeveloped part of Oak Hill Estates our personal playground. Egging houses and knocking on random doors well past midnight, only to hide in the bushes across the street, our veins pumping with adrenaline. Those are all memories I cherish and think of often.

But like all groups of friends we have scattered to the wind. Some to other states, some to wild financial success, some to fall off the map, but we all share our common origins. So when I wax nostalgic over Stevie Wonder’s excellent song I am recalling when all these things were happening. There was no thought of bills or responsibilities, of college or children, of mortgages or promotions, of tragedy and addiction. We were absolutely free and had endless possibilities. We were gold.

The world shapes and conditions us all. Some of us learn to adapt and others don’t. Even if I were to gather my old group of friends in the same room, the dynamics would not be the same. So all I have are my memories and my longing to re-experience those times. There is no going back. The feeling you got when you saw your first love. The excitement of landing your first job. The thrill of running free and knowing that you and your friends would be together forever. These are all solidly in the past. So click below and have a listen, really take in the lyrics, and relive the times you thought would last, the times when you were truly free. Stay gold.

Back From the Dead…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there is a reason for that. I am terrible at sticking with things once I start them. I am a serial un-finisher. If I had followed through on all the projects I began I would have to live five times in order to complete them. So I’m rededicating myself to this particular blog because, on the whole, I believe it is here that I actually have something to say. I am a social worker through and through. This can, at times, be difficult to fully embrace. I wonder why I seem to lack empathy in certain situations that would kill other people emotionally. I get burnt out and find myself rushing through my day. I shut myself off to the present moment and allow my mind to wander on to the next thing I have to do before I even finish what I’m doing. I count productivity rather than quality when I should be paying attention to both. I don’t give myself completely to my work when I am blessed to be in a unique position in which I can make an enormous difference on a daily basis. In other words, I can be one selfish motherfucker.

When I’m not creating and sharing my soul suffers. I become wrapped up in my rigid routines and get resentful at anyone or anything that threatens to derail them. I become disgusted with myself while harboring the unwillingness to change. I miss out on life because I focus only on myself. It may seem that I am wallowing in self pity, but I can assure you that I am not. I don’t expect anyone to fix anything for me. I have learned from ample experience that I can only do that myself. Feeling lost and isolated and knowing that you’re only doing it to yourself is a bad headspace. I’ve gotten to the point of mental and spiritual exhaustion and depletion. I need a recharge. I need to write and, in order to do so, I need to be actively engaging with the world. This post might be a bunch of bullshit babble, but I just had to get something down in order to start. Time to get to work.

Peace,

Christopher