To maintain a balance between earning money as a private practice therapist to support my family, and providing my services to the poor to promote social justice, I work one day a week for Safe Babies, Safe Moms a non-profit in the Everett area. Their clientele consists of chemically dependent, multi-system involved women in poverty with children under the age of three. Most of them have lost children to CPS, are homeless, facing legal charges for drugs and prostitution, and are coming out of domestic violence relationships and/or gang involvement. In short, these are the kind of people most therapists would pay money to avoid treating.
With one lone exception, every single client I have worked with in the program grew up with repeated, severe sexual abuse in a household of addiction and neglect. The trauma load these women carry would make the average person reach for the very same drug escape routes that my clients are trying to give up.
I see my work simply being to increase my client’s sense of personal safety and self worth enough that they can drop their tough chick acts and delve into their raw, messy feelings. That’s where all the yummy changes get made.
This week in parenting class we discussed how story telling can provide the perfect, shiny wrapper for a lesson. Kids hate lectures, but they love stories. Who doesn’t?
In indigenous communities gathering around a fire to listen to stories was a way to reinforce identity, retain history, and solve problems. In today’s world some fairy tales and cartoons use stories as a vehicle to teach values.
As a therapist I am keenly aware of the value of creating a personal narrative: until an experience is safely embedded in language, the part of our brain that creates meaning from raw experience hasn’t made sense of the life event.
So to both promote the mental health of the moms as well as their ability to reach out to and connect with their children, I had the mothers write personal stories to read to their children about their own lives. It was awesome and much tissue was used (I measure my effectiveness in Kleenex boxes).
The very next evening I had the great pleasure of seeing internationally renowned author and social activist Anne Lamott in a rare engagement speak about the power of story-telling. Her points were elegant and simple, and they apply equally to writing as they do to mental health.
Anne Lamott’s Brilliant Advice for all Carbon Based Life Forms (that’s you):
1. Perfectionism is your enemy
2. It’s okay not to know more than you do right now
3. Do Less: practice radical inefficiency
4. Failure, mistakes and false starts and central to the process
5. Give yourself permission to ask for a lot of help
With her encouraging voice in my ear, I cancelled a social obligation and spent today wrestling dandelions in my yard. My garden is a lovely space where weedy chaos battles my design agenda in a close match for control. Like writing, or mental health, I try to find the balance between being deliberate without being a perfectionist. Regardless of my efforts to assert myself, at the end of the day there are more dandelions than tulips. I retreat inside with a good book, saved by the story.