Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
This weekend I am on a wonderful writing retreat in a vacation rental house along Lake Washington with a couple therapist friends who, like me, are always too busy working/parenting/living to get to our writing. The house is exquisite: original art on every wall, a water view out the window, gorgeous red hardwood floors, blooming Camellias in the back yard and all of it just steps away from Seward Park, one of the best parks in all of Seattle.
What a startling contrast to my original experience of the south Seattle area. When I first moved to Seattle in 1997 I took a job in Child Protective Services in the Rainier Valley. I worked like a fiend: coming in early, staying late, and returning on weekend mornings to catch up on paperwork. But no matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. Trying to figure out what was really going on in the homes of abused children was a little like playing Russian roulette. Some abused children lied to protect their parents and to maintain their families. Some parents lied to protect themselves and to keep the children that they loved, even as they abused them. Some referrants (the people who called CPS to make the reports) lied because the mother had made them mad and they were trying to get even. Some foster parents provided foster homes not out of compassion for mistreated children but as a way of turning vacant bedrooms into sources of income. Some parents lied about the abuse to keep their kids because they simply wanted to maintain their welfare check. It was a heart-breaking job because even if I did it perfectly (which let me be clear: I did not) I created real misery in many children I was trying to protect.
It was in this very same neighborhood that I was now lounging in a custom lake front house with my ergonomically designed keyboard and a cup of high quality Tazo tea. We just returned from boutique shopping (very important for the writing process).
When my clients move from a generalized anxiety condition such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to a new and integrated, calm self, it’s much like my experience at my writing retreat: the neighborhood is the same, but the emotional reality is completely different.
Being anxious served me well when I worked for CPS. I was able to detect facial and verbal cues that indicated someone was not telling the truth. I could work long hours without break. I could keep myself safer in drug dens by keeping my body between the other person and the door.
In private practice now, working with people who are voluntarily spending time and money to heal, those skills are—thankfully–no longer necessary. I am involved in the lives of people who have invited me to do so, who usually express gratitude to me and are delightful to work with.
Oftentimes our anxiety circuits—the parts of our brain responsible for scanning for general danger and zeroing in like a predator on a pray animal when specific danger arises—can become stuck “on” and fail to take in new information such as “the threat is over and I am safe now.”
Therapy aims to help people notice what is true NOW: to differentiate between past and present circumstances, and to take back our current-day power instead of continuing to surrender it to a once-upon-a-time powerlessness. It’s helpful to know that this differentiation is something we all struggle with from time to time. If you have ever felt yourself burning with resentment over something that happened a long time ago, or feeling ashamed about a painful experience you had no control over, this might be a memory in need of some healing. From where I sit, next to a two story view of the blue sky I am grateful for this new experience of south Seattle.