Insight doesn’t take a vacation.

So I’m not working this week since I’m in Kona, Hawaii with my wife and some friends, yet here I sit pecking away on my laptop. I fully blame the girl at the coffee shop in Hilo that served me the single best cold-brewed coffee I’ve ever had. I was understandably excited when she described the cold-brew process in detail, assuring me that the grounds had steeped a full 18 hours, that they actually use their finest beans for their cold-brew, and that it was their “buzziest” coffee. That last part got me (hear me fellow addicts!?) and, while I finished it almost two hours ago, I still feel like I need to change my sobriety date, clean the hotel room two or three times, and pick these damn bugs off my skin.

Cliché as it is, I’m finding it very difficult to unplug from life for long enough to fully commune with these awesome surroundings. Fourteen years ago I went to Costa Rica. I was only there a week, but I remember not watching television for over a month when I returned home. There was no Facebook, Candy Crush, Trivia Crack, Twitter, or Buzzfeed. Even if there were I wouldn’t have had access to them. I don’t think I even brought my cell phone along (or my pager, but that’s a different story altogether). It was like I’d actually, you know, travelled out of the country. The internet has made communication so much easier, but it’s also provided enough psychic white noise to drown my brain until I’m habitually and mind-numbingly slapping my finger against my phone’s tiny glass screen like a rat trying to get a bit of kibble by pulling a lever. I’m surrounded by paradise and I have to remind myself to stop checking Facebook.

I was able to take a half hour and quietly meditate at sunset on the beach when we got back from our trip to the volcano (that’s also another story altogether–did you know there are cracks in the earth that just sit there and steam!?). I sat and watched all the different sized waves roll in and crash near the foot of my chair and something happened. All of that background noise melted away. Mind you, my brain didn’t stop spinning (it hardly ever does), but I contemplated the ocean and thought about an example I’ve always used to explain my views on spirituality and the human condition.

Buddhists have this concept called “dependent arising,”, which basically means that what you will arise to be (in ten minutes or ten thousand lifetimes) is dependent upon who and what you are right now. So I think that we’re all basically like tumbleweeds or waves, starting with one little thing and rolling along picking things up in our paths that then become a part of who we are. From this perspective, God is like an infinite ocean and our ridiculously temporary little lives are like waves that come to the shore. Each wave is completely made from the same source, but very briefly takes its own form and rushes to the beach, breaking and then slowly receding back to the source. So if I’m a wave, I’ve gathered up all of these crazy personality traits and characteristics that make me a person, but I’m really made up completely and wholly of the same source that makes up each of you and all other living things. I know it sounds new-agey, but it makes sense to me.

End of old insight–beginning of new insight.

As I observed the waves today, I noticed that none of them even remotely follow the same path. They don’t even come from the same directions. There were big waves coming in diagonally, little ones crashing into one another and joining forces, and all other manners of activity that seemed very unwavelike to me (you can tell I don’t live by the ocean). It occurred to me that my earlier thinking had been, as it can often be, way too simplistic. People do not exist in a vacuum. We bounce off each other, forming all kinds of interactions that might be super-dynamic for a second or may lead to some kind of relationship. We influence one another. We change the course of each other’s lives and paths and it’s all supposed to be that way. We are all the same, because we’re all from the same place (or same “stuff”, if you will). Life is messy and chaotic and beautiful and imperfect, but it’s never an accident.

Anyways, I’m going back at sunset tomorrow.

Aloha,

Christopher

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“Wow, it takes a special person to do what you do.”

Whenever I talk to someone about my job as a hospice social worker, I invariably get one (or all) of the following responses:

“God, that must be so depressing!”

“It takes a very special person to do what you do.”

“God bless you, I couldn’t do it.”

I usually respond by saying, “You don’t have to be a saint, you just have to have the right personality for the job.” It recently occurred to me that I’ve been saying this for so long that I don’t even take the time to think about what it means. I can explain that, when I am with my patients, I am completely aware and present. They have my empathy, compassion, and best intentions. When I leave work, however, I don’t spend one minute fretting over their conditions or feeling sorry for them. I don’t wonder if there isn’t something more I could do for them. I feel no guilt if I’ve made some sort of mistake–I simply make it right as soon as possible. So that’s basically what I mean by the right “personality” for social work, but what is it about me that contributes to this?

I once had a mentor who was a fantastic therapist and school social worker that just seemed to connect with all of his students. Everyone including me liked and respected him. One day he told me that what helped him immensely was that he had always had an “out of sight, out of mind” personality. He added that this trait did not always engender successful relationships in his personal life. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I now see the parallels between he and I.

I have a tendency to be downright obsessive. This is not unusual for addicts as we tend to have overactive minds. We also have an unfortunate propensity to ruthlessly pick apart and analyze ourselves to the point of distress and detriment. I am, for lack of a better term, extremely self-absorbed. That I can focus as much attention on my patients and others as I do is a miracle, and I don’t use that term lightly. Bouts of severe anxiety have marked my 16+ years of recovery and I have learned to compartmentalize these to an almost monastic extent when faced with emotionally intense situations such as those I commonly encounter at work. These, coupled with a tendency to dissociate from my feelings since childhood, likely contribute to my ability to go completely emotionally flat and switch on my rational mind when I find it necessary to be a neutralizing factor in an otherwise catastrophic scene. This enables me to perform a lightning-quick assessment, pick up on the myriad of verbal and nonverbal cues, decide what needs are to be addressed and in what order, and act decisively and tactfully to provide optimal comfort and ease of tension for all parties involved. If that sounds arrogant, so be it. That’s what I do and I am very good at it.

So the question remains–can we, as social workers and helpers, utilize those parts of ourselves that could be termed pathological to promote healing and catharsis? I would argue that these are the very things that make it possible for me to be so effective with my patients. The key is to be cognizant of our flaws and put in the necessary work (be it through seeing a therapist or regularly consulting with knowledgeable confidants) to keep our own issues from entering the picture and influencing the course of our interventions. I am what I am and, for better or worse, these are the things that make me a competent and confident social worker. I urge anyone seeking a career in the helping professions to engage in strenuous self-inventory, self-care, and self-improvement on an ongoing basis. It is only with tenacity and dogged perseverance that we can best perform our life’s work.

Until next time, peace out.

Christopher

A tad bit about me.

My name is Christopher Vollmer. I am (as of 10/14/14) 40 years old, married with no kids (two pups), and live and practice in the St. Louis area. I received my MSW in 2002 from St. Louis University and currently hold an LCSW (Missouri and Illinois). Since 2002 I have had the following social work jobs: crisis intervention with youth at-risk for suicide or harm to others; outpatient child and adolescent mental health therapy; hospital social work; middle management at community mental health agency; dialysis social work; and, hospice social work. I currently work for the midwest office of a national, for-profit hospice providing resources, grief and bereavement counseling, creative patient interventions, and education. My job rocks and I am very good at it (remember, I’m über!). There is no typical day in my line of work and I never know where I’ll find myself at any given time, but it’s usually interesting and nearly always intensely meaningful. One of the greatest blessings I regularly receive is to be in a position where a few kind, tactful, and well-placed words and gestures can have a world of impact on my patients and families. It is a privilege I do not take lightly.

On a personal level I don’t really fit in a box. I love quiet alone time and can spend hours at the coffee shop or bookstore, but I’m so social that I count many baristas among my friends and acquaintances. I have many friends, but a pretty select group of very close confidants. I practice Zen meditation and play loud, aggressive guitar. I love to read and write, but can just as likely be found watching horror movies (must have horror movies!). I like to run, but only on a treadmill. I don’t smoke, drink, or take any illicit drugs, but consider myself a coffee junkie and will pay more for the good stuff. I like to rock climb, do yoga, and lift weights, but I go through phases with each. I’m addicted to trivia games and don’t find them trivial at all. My wife and I were married on 10/10/10 and I respect her more than anyone I’ve ever met. We both love tattoos and are pretty much covered. At this point in the game I only get custom designs of things I find amusing, usually an homage to one of my dogs. I’m in twelve step recovery for addiction and have been sober since 9/30/98, still attending three meetings a week. There’s a lot more, but that’s it for now.

Above all, I love to communicate concepts to people and help them understand things. I hope you find my blog interesting, heartfelt, a little educational, and a lot eye-opening. Thanks for the read and keep coming back!

Peace,

Christopher

On the state of the world.

The world is screwed. There is no hope. Just check any news station, pick up a paper, or turn on the radio. A thousand talking heads are delivering this message with countless stories and statistics to prove their claims. CNN and Fox News manage to squeeze at least two or three different story lines into one frame complete with scrolling text, vivid colors, and personalities of varying genders decked out in high fashion. Selling doom and gloom is big business, and business is exploding (literally, in some cases). I find myself as mesmerized by the elaborate spectacles presented on television and the interwebs as children watching their favorite cartoons. In fact, these shows remind me of commercials aimed at children. You know, the ones where the volume jumps up a few notches and mega tsunamis of stimuli engulf and overwhelm the eyes, ears, and brains of their tiny viewers (targets)? I run on a treadmill at the gym and see a roomful of adults stare at these screens with the same wide-eyed expressions and wonder just how much we’re all influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by this sensationalism. One thing is certain–most people I know will adamantly agree that the world is more or less broken on a fundamental level.

There is, however, one fatal flaw in this logic–everyday I encounter wonderful people doing kind things for each other. Go figure. I would say the amount of time I spend with interesting, dynamic human beings or in peaceful solitude is nearly proportional to the amount of time the aforementioned media outlets dedicate to the dissemination of fear and, by extension, mass control of the public’s thoughts and emotions. How can there be such a discrepancy? I have come to the conclusion that the world with which I interact on a daily basis, my direct experience, is more distinctly and intuitively real than what I read or hear reported to me by someone situated in a faraway studio, attempting to further their agenda. Today I choose to believe in the inherent goodness of people, especially those willing to live in the moment and engage with me on an intelligent and rational basis. Toxic emotions are cheap and all-too-renewable. I have no time for them, for there is too much work to be done. ‘Til next time, I bid you adieu. Don’t believe the hype!

Peace,

Christopher