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“I honor her struggle.”

January 6, 2012 16 comments

Today is my mom’s 60th birthday. My mom, however, is not here to celebrate. In the spring of 2006, she committed suicide. As I’ve written before, I also lost my brother over a decade ago. For some reason, if the topic of family comes up with someone I just met, I can readily explain that my brother was killed by a drunk driver. However, if someone starts asking about my mom, I describe her death in a vague, abstract way, like “Well, it was kind of sudden, but she was sick for a long time.” Then I jump to a new subject before the person even has a chance to respond.

For the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I do this. Why can I say point blank, “My brother was killed by a drunk driver” but I can’t say, “My mom committed suicide”? I think that in the case of my brother, it’s easier to explain to someone how my brother died due to the universal sympathy that his death can evoke. He was young. He was the victim. Most people know someone either directly or indirectly who have been killed by a drunk driver. Most people can imagine what it might be like to lose a sibling.

Considering my mom’s death, it’s a lot more jarring to tell someone that my mother committed suicide. I think it can sound so violent and extremely upsetting. Depending on the other person’s beliefs and values, they might think negatively of my mom or start in on me about how they view suicide as inherently wrong. I know that suicide is a taboo in our culture. But am I holding back to protect the other person’s feelings for asking an innocent question, or am I holding back to protect myself from the other person’s reaction? Or, it is the case that I don’t want anyone to judge my mom for decision to take her own life, and therefore I hold back to protect her?

I can only conclude that it’s a combination all three. I don’t want to make someone feel bad for asking normal getting-to-know-you type question. I don’t want to feel bad myself for having to think about my mom when I don’t feel comfortable, and I don’t want to get into an argument about the morality of suicide.

The thing is, I’m not angry with my mom or ashamed of what she did. My mom really did try. She began life with one of the worst childhoods imaginable. That meant she never had much of a family support system. Her father and sister died by the time she was 35. My mom also had a chemical imbalance which greatly affected her functioning. She was severely depressed for about thirty years of her life. This made it very difficult for her to maintain healthy relationships, no matter how much work she put into herself. She went to therapy. She took medication. She volunteered. In her early 50s, she even went back to college. She explored all sorts of different spiritual paths. I think, though, that when brother died, something broke in my mom that she couldn’t repair. Unlike you or me, my mom wasn’t born with a good tool kit for coping, nor was she ever given useful examples from her family. I know she fought hard, but fighting makes you tired. Personally, I can’t justify expecting my mom to continue into her 80s never feeling secure, never feeling loved, and never feeling happy. I think she had every right to give herself a chance to rest.

I’m not going to lie to you: my mom and I had a pretty terrible relationship. However, I know that so much of her behavior was really out of her hands. And I also know that she tried as hard as she could everyday to change. I will never forget the words my cousin, Claire, spoke at my mom’s funeral. As Claire described what my mom and their relationship meant to her, she also spoke of my mom’s constant struggle to find contentment. Claire concluded, “I honor her struggle.”

I will do the same.

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Look closely.

December 12, 2011 2 comments

Recently, I’ve been deeply absorbed in my own little battles. I got pretty sick at the end of October and then I didn’t really recover. It’s made work and school pretty difficult, constructing a treasure chest of stress and anxiety for me. While I’d like to think my normal state of being is pragmatic with a dash of optimism, as of late I’ve been mostly cynical with a touch of skepticism. I’ve written and talked so much about how rough things are that I neglect to think about about what I’m getting out of this strange time.

For the past eleven weeks, I’ve been involved in a psycho-educational group for the young women at my internship. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, this group is designed to help our clients, all of whom have experienced complex trauma and loss, to learn how to use their negative experiences to build a source of strength so they can make plans for their future. Co-facilitating this group has been one of the most beneficial experiences for me, both professionally and personally. I work in a residential setting so everything we do has a family feel to it. Before each group, the staff and I cook for our clients and their children. We all eat dinner together and then the kids go off with staff to do their homework (or just to play for the real little ones) and my co-facilitator and I go off with the moms for group. Tonight was the the last lesson in the unit covering loss, and the moms decided to cook dinner for everyone to make it a special occasion. I thought it was really nice that they wanted to take a turn.

With each group, I keep learning more and more. I interned at a hospital last year and I thought that the constant interaction with so many different patients was showing me so much about people in the way we interact with each other and cope with our experiences. By working with the same clients week after week, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing these young women begin to grow and change. Even if they may goof around sometimes and get off topic, they have these very powerful moments when they  share insight from a painful experience, or respectfully debate a touchy subject. Our group is voluntary, and so is participation. You don’t have to say anything while you’re there. For a lot of people, saying how you feel is terrifying. Yet these young women do it week after week in a room full of people. It’s been very humbling for me. I loved every minute of it.

So while the last month and half has been hard, I know therein lies tremendous value.

What can’t we do? (A love letter to humanity)

September 25, 2011 3 comments

I had to make two trips to South Philly today. The first trip I entirely looked forward to, as it was judo practice and Sunday is my favorite practice day. The second trip was for a class assignment. Although I am on the clinical track, I’m taking a macro elective this semester on community organizing and development. This assignment entails selecting two community events (rally/demonstration, planning meeting, membership meeting, etc.) and then writing a short reflection on the community capacity present and the existing organizing strategies. Tonight, I was going to the Founding Convention for P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organizing to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild). P.O.W.E.R. is an organization of organizations, primarily of different religious congregations, whose goal is to improve literacy, employment, housing, and safety for all Philadelphians. Now, these are all things that are important to me. Why else would I be in social work school right now? However, I really did not want to go. Laziness. Feeling like I should be doing other work. Laziness compounded with more laziness.  But it was for school, and I like getting A’s, so I went back to South Philly.

Roughly 2.5 seconds of arriving at the church for the convention, I thought, “I’m so dumb. Of course I want to be here.” The church was PACKED. There was singing and smiling and hand-shaking. I was nearly knocked over by this incredible blast of energy from all these people from different spiritual, cultural, racial, and class backgrounds.  They had a mission. That’s all that mattered. Everyone was welcome to join them.

I have been to my fair share of events like this, but every time the dominant feeling was urgency. Walking out of those sort of meetings, I sometimes felt like the world was going to end if the organization’s goals were not accomplished. It was motivating, but maybe not empowering. P.O.W.E.R.’s convention was nothing BUT empowering. Yes, each speaker conveyed the urgency of the state of Philadelphia. Our unemployment rate is 11% and twice that among African Americans and Latinos. Our literacy proficiency and high school graduation rates are shameful. People who are willing and able to work cannot get jobs. But the community leaders tempered the potential for doubt and hopelessness by injecting gentle teasing about liberal and conservative perspectives, playful scolding of local officials to remain accountable to their pledges, and as I mentioned before, lots of singing.

I can’t predict how successful P.O.W.E.R. will be in achieving its goals. I can say that for those two hours, I was in love with humanity. Like head over heels in love. Feeling the enthusiasm, the hope, the determination, and the overwhelming compassion for the people that live in this city generated by each person in that church made me smile, made me tear up, and at one point, actually squeal with delight. Most of the time, working in social services is depressing. I often feel hopeless either about various public systems, my ability to effectively work with clients, and the general sense of apathy surrounding real change, however you may define it.  But little moments like tonight, I think, do have the potential to create some sort of impact. These are also the little moments that make so glad that I’m in social work. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Sensei Says…

September 12, 2011 1 comment

“A part of self-defense is taking control of your life and assuming responsibility for yourself.”

Our Sensei Emeritus was at practice this evening and pulled me aside to speak with me conceptually about my practice. This one little statement rang eerily relevant for me right now for several reasons. Sensei is very good at that kind of thing. In my attempts  to honor my commitment to both my practices, judo and social work, I often make things unnecessarily difficult, thinking that trying to cram as much work in as possible will lead to improvement and success. On one hand, this frequently becomes true; on the other, I too often burn myself out. Every time I realize than I’m a mere mortal, it’s incredibly disappointing.

In my life, taking the hard route is easy. Taking the easy route is hard. However, strategically taking the easy route here and there will permit me the strength to excel when I head down the hard path. Essentially, I have to become happy with the happy medium.

As the school year kicks off and my internship begins, my sensei’s thoughts also make think of my clients. I work with the “underserved”, who sometimes struggle with feelings of victimization and low self-worth. When compounded w ith socio-economic barriers, they sometimes feel as though it’s either terrifying or impossible to change their lives. While my job is to help people realize they have the strength to help themselves, I may catch clients when they’re not quite ready for such daunting work.

I think this fear still holds true for many of us who are not considered “underserved”. Being honest with yourself and recognizing that change does not come magically, admitting you need help and following through feels too scary. So we stay cemented in place, incapable of moving forward.

It threw me off-guard tonight to realize how much insight my sensei has. It was hard to hear his words because he was throwing some serious truth about myself at me. But it’s just what I needed. It’s time to stop letting my fear of failure and mediocrity drive my actions. Such fear negates the reasons I am drawn to social work and judo to begin with. It’s important to embrace the process, including the set-backs. If I focus on the imaginary finish line and skip over the course itself, my feet will remain stuck in place. I thank my sensei for giving me the sledge hammer I need to break up the cement.

 

On loving bruises.

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

When I step off the mat after training, there are a few indicators for me that mark a good practice. They can be a breakthrough in executing a technique, trying something new for the first time that feels like a good fit, or simply having good chemistry with my training buddies. Now, I know this is going to sound sick to some of you, but my favorite indicator of a solid night of training is being covered in bruises. I really love my bruises. Most of the time, we don’t like bruises. They remind us each time someone touches our sore spot or we knock it accidentally that we got hurt. And getting hurt is bad. When it comes to judo though, seeing black and blue marks left from my training buddies’ fingers and thumbs means that we were working hard that night, that we weren’t holding back, or letting the day’s fatigue leading up to class get to us. So my bruises doesn’t serve as symbol of pain; rather, I see them as a symbol of how exciting it is being in the moment, giving everything we have on the mat.

Of course, I do recognize the downside of my leopard spots. For example, when you’re a girl who will be wearing a sleeveless summer dress at a formal occasion this weekend, a smattering of black and blue finger prints can raise some eye brows. It’s hard enough explaining to some people what judo is in the first place, let alone the fact that I love doing something that makes me look like a victim. Little do they know that my bruises make me feel ready to take on the world.

Categories: Human Nature, Judo, Life

This was real life.

August 8, 2011 1 comment

As I’ve mentioned several times, I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Social Work. Specifically, I am focusing on clinical social work so that I can become a counselor. I have several areas of interest, including immigrants and preventative health care accessibility, families coping with substance abuse issues, and women coping with recent and past traumas.

In a previous post, I talked about the kind of responses I get when people ask me what I do. Well, over the weekend, I got response to my answer that totally threw me for a loop. I was out on Saturday night and talking with a girl a few years younger than I am. The conversation went a little something like this:

Girl: Oh, so you’re in school work social work? What do you want to do with that?

Me: Well, I want to be a counselor, and mainly I want to work with young women coping with trauma and are trying to get their life back on track.

Girl: Oh, like me!

This has never happened to me before. I didn’t know what to say at first. She went on to tell me a little about her past and the social program she went through so that she could go back to school and become a little more stable. We went on to talk  about the fact that we don’t all start out on an even playing field and how you have to work a little harder when you’ve never had good role models.

During the conversation, I felt a little uncomfortable. I am totally used to clients spilling their guts to me. I am comfortable with my friends spilling their guts to me. In fact, I have even had many strangers on SEPTA spill their guts to me, and I could roll with it. But at first, this girl didn’t seem that different from me. She was also sort of a friend of a friend, so I just really was not expecting her to reveal that she was one of the “underserved” that social workers devote their lives to. So I was super paranoid about being condescending or patronizing, or any of the other things you don’t want to be when a human being opens up to you. I started second guessing myself again when she was telling me about her career aspirations and I immediately began giving her ideas for resources to look into. I mean, really. Did I need to start counseling this girl in our free time on Saturday night? Is that OK?  I did really care about what this girl was saying, so in a way, I couldn’t help myself in trying to encourage to take her success farther. But I don’t even have a degree yet, let alone a license, so who am I to start throwing out a game plan to this girl?

In all my time working in social services, I never felt more aware of the difference in privilege than during this random conversation with this girl. I thought I had learned how deal with that gap already, and here I am, realizing once again that I still have so far to go.

When insomnia leads to novice blogging.

When I got pretty sick a week ago, my doctor put me on a low-dose steroid to get me back on track. I am currently tapering off the medication, but since I’ve been on it, I’ve been eating enough for an active 200 pound man and can’t seem to fall asleep. So for the second time in a four day period, I find myself waking up at 1:30 AM starving, and subsequently eating and blogging. The real victim here is you, dear reader.

I’ve only been writing this blog for a few weeks, and I remain on the fence about it. I’ve always loved to write, but I haven’t written for recreation or even kept a journal for years. So I have concerns about accidentally turning this into a diary, which would be horribly boring for anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves here. I do believe that good writing has to be honest and needs to have a genuine voice. Even instructional blogs become popular because they have a distinctive perspective.

There’s a line of privacy, I suppose is what you’d call it, that I would like not to cross. However, there are definitive moments in my life which have shaped my perspective. I wonder if I write about a related topic and reveal something truly personal, if that would be inappropriate. I’m not quite sure what the right word is here. Since I’ve been in my MSW program, I’ve discovered that most practicing and aspiring social workers have specific experiences in their personal lives that draw them to the field.  So when you’re surrounded by a bunch of social workers all of the time, discussing the skeletons in your family’s closet becomes normalized. To the rest of the world, these conversations would be  a little too heavy for a second or third encounter, but for social workers, it’s nearly water cooler chit chat. I keep thinking that I must remember we’re all not social workers who love to analyze human nature and our relationships with other people.

Although I feel self-conscious about writing a blog, the only way that I can get a handle on it is to keep at it. I will just try to balance the personal and universal, and keep my terrible jokes to a minimum. I will, however, not refrain from drowning you in cliches. It’s one of my favorite writing rules to break. So get your life vests on!