9 Things I Won’t Miss and 4 Things I Will Miss From My Last Job

jail-cellThis week I started a new job after spending the last 4.5 years working as a social worker/ counselor in a county jail-based substance abuse program, run under the direction of the local Sheriff’s office. I am proud of the work I was doing, helping people take a hard look at what got them to this point, see their own potential, and plan the changes that might keep them from returning to alcohol or drugs (and incarceration) as a coping skill. After 21 years of significant success, the powers-that-be decided to hand over substance abuse treatment to the medical and mental health entity, ending the program as it is, and eventually presenting the dreaded pink slips to any personnel who haven’t found other employment. Although I feel sadness and disappointment for the ending of this chapter of my life and career, particularly in this manner, I accept the opportunity to stretch and grow in other areas as I move forward. Saying “so long” is never easy, and it has been an emotional week. This tongue-in-cheek post is meant to lighten up my own mood as much as it is to give a somewhat humorous but real peek into the life of those who work behind the walls and barbed-wire.

I won’t miss:

Having to carry a see-through purse/bag. I believe this is self-explanatory; however, “transparency” has a whole new meaning when you have to choose a small plastic purse that fits inside your “outside” purse, just to make sure you don’t ever leave behind something you really need while making sure you aren’t carrying “contraband.”

Hearing constant two-way radio chatter. This may not have bothered others, but it was like nails-on-the-chalkboard to this INFJ, who gets more work done and renewed mentally and emotionally in a quiet atmosphere.

Clanging of sliders and clicking of doors. Anyone watch Law &  Order? You know that sound at the beginning of the show, and between scenes? Yes, kind of like that. Any efforts to see clients in their housing unit means you hear that. You get used to it after 4.5 years, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Getting caught in a sally port and forgotten. In the event you’ve never had the experience of being incarcerated, volunteered in, or visited someone in jail or prison, a sally port could be described as a small enclosed hallway between two steel sliding doors. Someone far away at a control panel lets you in from one side and closes that side before opening the other. I was never stranded between the two for more than 5-10 minutes, but that can seem like an eternity when you’re claustrophobic! Yikes!

Eating every lunch out of plastic or paper containers and with plastic utensils. The building where programs and our offices were positioned was within a secure area. This was convenient for seeing clients, but limited us from using ceramic plates and cups or metal utensils. Not the end of the world, I know, but definitely inconvenient for potlucks and cutting or stabbing leftover steak you bring from home. And try to cut a large graduation celebration cake with a spatula! Messy is an understatement.

Multiple county-and-agency-wide emails daily that don’t pertain to me. At all. It remains to be seen if this is only true of a large local government. Nonetheless, it is aggravating, particularly when you return from vacation and most of what you received is to be deleted. If you don’t, you might get that cleanup-your-mailbox warning.

Intercom announcements that echo so much they can’t be understood and seemingly go on forever. I’m sure that much of this issue is due to the concrete structure and design of the buildings, but when you are straining to assess a client and talk over one of the many announcements, you just have to stop and wait it out. (The only loudspeaker “announcement” I appreciated was one clear morning I arrived to work and could hear The Star Spangled Banner proclaimed loudly from Tent City. My throat tightened with emotion and pride as I stopped and faced the flag, singing every word.)

Constant awareness for items that are considered contraband for inmates due to their potential to become a weapon. I never had an issue with an inmate attempting to take something they were not to have, but I had to develop an alertness for the potential risk of a pen, marker, scissors (kindergarten blunt-tip ones used in cutting up magazines for vision boards), glue sticks, makeup in your pocket, etc., that might drop or be left behind in the counseling room or the housing unit.

jail-cell-2Disrespect of human beings based on their current setting. This does not apply to everyone, but it is reality. I am no bleeding heart and believe most of us have to accept consequences for choices we have made. When employees (not colleagues) ask why you are helping “these people,” it’s disheartening, as “these people” are getting released to my community. The more tools they have to change, the better chance they have to contribute positively. They may not go out and change this time, but some time in their future they may remember something they learned and choose to change. I have to take that chance.

I will miss:

Working 1st shift hours. Traffic! Need I say more? Okay, I will anyway. The 0630-1430 shift means the commute is significantly shorter and less annoying. After only one week, I’m still working on navigating this maybe-I-should-invest-in-a-jet-pack-or-use-Uber-so-I-can-still-get-something-done traffic! So far, Audible books have saved my sanity.

The experience I received of hearing the stories of clients who are at their lowest point. I am honored to have had clients who trusted me and their group members enough to share traumatic histories in a setting that does not lend itself to this kind of vulnerability. I grew professionally and personally. I am a better counselor and can take this experience with me and build on it.

Hearing from former clients who are seeing success. It’s not for a pat on the back. The clients are doing the hard work, facing all kinds of challenges. More than anything, those updates are an inspiration to continue doing and caring, despite the weariness of the work.

Some super talented colleagues who were and are passionate about what they do. I have learned from their experience and viewpoints, and felt valued by their support and encouragement. We hope to stay connected due to our common field of service, but proximity and crazy schedules make it a huge challenge. They will not be forgotten, and I will definitely miss “killin'” lunch, and continuing to say goodbye each day to a former colleague. Okay, maybe not that last part!

As a preacher’s kid, I never ever imagined, in my wildest dreams, that I would ever work in a jail, much less love it. It’s bittersweet moving on, but my time has not been wasted. In my last meeting with my group, more than one member admitted that they never dreamed of or planned on opening up to a counselor before this experience. What a privilege to have had the opportunity to impact people in a positive way. More opportunities are coming my way.

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When the Good Memories Outweigh the Grief: Tools of the Trade

more-toolsSix years ago, I wrote this letter, wiping the tears away after each line. Missing my dad and his goofy jokes, his heart for people, his beautiful tenor voice.

“Dear Dad,                                                                      1/7/11

Today would have been your 82nd birthday. It’s hard to believe you’ve been gone almost 10 years. Just thought I’d jot down the memories that have been playing through my mind today. From stories of your childhood, pranks you pulled in high school, lame and over-used jokes, to your tender heart for those experiencing troubles, you touched many with humor and love.

I experienced so many things because you felt strongly about showing Chris and me the world.  Many times we vacationed in places where significant time walking caused your legs to shake in pain all night, preventing sleep. Never did that hinder you from taking us to visit more beautiful and exciting places the next time, even enduring the long lines to the wild rides at King’s Island.

Your love of music has not been lost on me. I remember hearing you yell from the other room for me to stop singing and go to sleep. I was only four or five, but quoted the words from Redeemed, “I sing for I cannot be silent.” You tried to hold back a smile, but I knew you were proud that your love of music was in my heart. When I played in a recital or sang in church, no matter how many mistakes I made, you thought I was perfect. I’m not sure I can ever listen to someone else tune a piano without missing you.

I remember riding along in the big trucks with you to pick up gravel, lumber, hay from Ohio, or Sunday evenings on the bus transporting college students who were anxious about the narrow bridge across the river. “Just close your eyes like I do,” was your reassuring retort that brought laughs from some and nervous looks from others. Were you surprised when I got my CDL and drove a school bus?

When I made mistakes or bad choices, I knew you were disappointed, but you never stopped loving me. So many times you could have said you tried to warn me, but you didn’t. You weren’t perfect, and you never claimed to be, but your example showed me that nothing can separate me from God’s love.

Losing Chris changed you, as it did all of us, but in that most painful time of your life, when anger towards God might have been justified, you leaned on Him even more. Singing in The Messiah was something I looked forward to as a child, but the reality of it was even better. Watching tears stream down your face while you directed ‘Surely He has born our grief and carried our sorrow’ was evidence of your faith. Anyone who had any feelings couldn’t sing half-heartedly, knowing that you knew firsthand what grief and sorrow felt like. You always said you wanted to direct a choir of angels singing The Hallelujah Chorus when you got to heaven. I like to imagine you’re doing just that.

These are the things you taught me: Love God with every ounce of energy. Laugh. Sing. Love family. Laugh. Sing. Love people. Laugh. Sing. Serve others. Laugh. Sing. Be honest. Laugh. Sing. Work hard. Laugh. Sing. Enjoy coffee.

When I shared with your one-and-only granddaughter your story of fighting God’s call to preach because you wanted to be famous as a pianist, she said, “But Mom, Grandpa was famous.” She knows that you have touched, moved, and inspired students who are ministering for God around the world.

You live on in my heart!

Cheers! (With a cup of coffee, of course!)”

There is so much more to what he taught me, especially the coffee part, and one of those lessons smacked me in the face today. While it is unusual to have damp weather here in the desert, we have recently had plenty of rain. Consequently, my front door swelled a bit and was sticking, making it difficult to open, particularly for my mother. I finally remembered a DIY fix for the situation I learned from my dad, and stopped by my local hardware to look for some graphite powder. While I was browsing the store, I realized that my dad’s piano tuning tool kit (that I barely saved from being passed outside the family after dad passed) probably still had some, so I headed home.

Opening that case brought back a flood of memories like a forty-foot swell on a stormy ocean. It traveled to Papua New Guinea three times for dad to repair pianos for missionaries, completely funded by gifts from people who loved him. (One of those times, I got to go along and help him re-string the bass section of a piano and sing along with him in services.) It moved to Arizona with him when he left his beloved Kentucky mountains to retire and live near his one-and-only granddaughter. It probably recognized many of the curvy mountain roads, and I recognized the many familiar tools and the many spare parts he had saved because he would need them sometime. (I came by my hoarding issue naturally.)

As you can see in the photo above, the tuning fork is worn from more than 50 years of use. The mutes and felt strips, the tuning hammer have not been touched in years. The tool he designed and had made to more easily insert the cork straps, the clamp to reapply ivory on keys, the worn out sandpaper paddle are all idle. And there was the small black and blue oil applicator with graphite powder.

I smiled and remembered all the times I dutifully watched and learned as he worked his craft with pride in a job well done. And I felt grateful, and loved, and proud. More than the grief.

Painful Anniversaries Part 4: Funerals

chris-graveIt was the coldest, greyest day I’ve ever experienced. Maybe because my heart felt like a stone. In one of the most beautiful settings in the country, a rustic chapel nestled in the lush mountains, an event so sorrowful occurred. Like an oxymoron. While it might be easier at this point to call it a celebration of life, when the life was taken at such a young age, in the moment, it didn’t feel like celebration. At all.

My cousin’s beautiful bass voice rang out in a touching song. My strong, but tender-hearted uncle choked back emotion to speak about my brother and offer words of comfort for our family. If I remember correctly, he said that God wanted Chris with Him because He saw  how special he was. He quoted Isaiah 6:1,”In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” I’m not sure I understood how he was relating it to the situation at the time. Now it makes more sense.

Sleep overtook me on the 2-hour ride to the cemetery. It was the next hill over from our home and could be seen from our dining room window. Probably not the best choice, but no one plans ahead for the burial of a 20-year-old. It was a 15-minute walk and ended up being a place of solace for me through the years, but that day it was agonizing.

Much of the day, again, is a silent video playing in my head. A few details still comfort me:

  • I walked out of the chapel alone after saying my goodbyes and leaving my parents and sister-in-love to say theirs. I walked down the steps wondering if I could even survive the day, much less a lifetime without Chris. Just a few feet away stood my oldest cousin and his wife with open arms that grabbed and held me tightly under their umbrella, shielding me from the rain. Great love can be shown and felt during great trauma.
  • I don’t ever remember seeing so many flowers at a funeral, sent by people whose lives had been touched by my family. They also expressed their sympathy in writing, evidenced by the stack of cards for my parents. I received two that were just for me: one from my English teacher and the other signed by each of my classmates. Somehow they got misplaced over the years, but I wish I still had them. I don’t know if they knew exactly how special those cards were.
  • I was recently reminded that some of my schoolmates made a point to attend the funeral that day. I wish I could say that I had remembered that over the years, but I didn’t until prompted. I guess my grief clouded a few details, but I hope they know how much it means to know they were there even now.

It seemed like the longest day of my life. Had my circumstances been different, I could have easily been the high school dropout, or turned to any of a variety of behaviors to fill the void. Just days later, I told one of Chris’ friends that I didn’t want to live. And I didn’t. But God. The first time I heard Britt Nicole sing this song, I sobbed like that 14-year-old girl who just lost her only sibling, but I was also reminded of Who has been beside me all this time.

“I remember the moment
I remember the pain
I was only a girl
But I grew up that day
Tears were falling
I know You saw me

Hiding there in my bedroom
So alone
I was doing my best
Trying to be strong
No one to turn to
That’s when I met You

All this time
From the first tear cry
To today’s sunrise
And every single moment between
You were there
You were always there
It was You and I
You’ve been walking with me all this time

Ever since that day
it’s been clear to me
That no matter what comes
You will never leave
I know You’re for me
And You’re restoring

Every heartache and failure
Every broken dream
You’re the God who sees
The God who rescued me
This is my story
This is my story

I hear these people asking me
How do I know what I believe?
Well I’m not the same me
And I saw the proof I need
I felt Love I felt Your grace
You stole my heart that day

You’ve been walkin’ with me all this time

All this time
From the first tear cry
To today’s sunrise
And every single moment between
You were there
You were always there
It was You and I
You’ve been walking with me all this time”1

I want to live every day to honor Chris’ memory, to make sure his death is not in vain. A friend told me this week that I am a survivor. And I am. But I don’t want to only survive. I want to thrive. Allowing myself to be vulnerable and write is the best way I’ve found to do that. Because others have been vulnerable before me and helped me grow.

1 Written by David Arthur Garcia, Benjamin Glover, Brittany Waddell • Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

Painful Anniversaries Part 3: Death Notices

calendar1I was awakened early when the phone rang at approximately 0500 that morning. It was right outside my bedroom door. My parents had come home from the hospital the previous evening to shower, rest, and do laundry before returning to stay by my brother’s bedside in the ICU 85 miles away. Given the situation, it couldn’t be good news that early. I could hear my dad’s shaking voice as he responded to the call. His weeping indicated the broken heart of a father at the loss of his son. My mom’s tears joined in like an awful, discordant tune. As the tears began to form, she entered my room and sat on the edge of my bed. “You’re an only child now,” she said, but I already knew. For the longest time I wondered why she gave me the news that way. I suppose it’s extremely painful to say the words, “Chris is dead,” when Chris is your son. Is there any good way to say it?

Just a short time later, a colleague of my parents showed up to drive us to the hospital and to gather with other family to plan a funeral. A funeral for a 20-year-old taken too soon. Dad sobbed most of the trip – that kind of sob that shakes the body. I was sitting by the window, begging God not to take him, too, because I was certain that his heartbreak was going to cause a heart attack.  There was talk of concern for my grandmother’s hearing the news and a plan to ensure that she had family or even a physician available. She had been a big part of Chris’ early years while my parents lived on their property as they finished college. Life was unraveling in slow motion.

We spent most of the day at my grandparent’s house, and I will always be grateful for the presence of my aunt, uncle, and older cousins. They were a force of nature, bringing calm strength to the chaos of emotions while the “arrangements” were planned. I’m fairly certain that all of us were hanging on by a thread just to survive. Other details are a blur, but I still have a silent movie of the day that runs in my head. No voices. Just pictures of sitting on Grandma’s front porch swing, a seemingly insignificant item, but in reality, a huge source of comfort due to its familiarity.

chris-at-age-20It was today. October 5th, 1976. Not a year has gone by that the emotions of that day don’t come to mind. There aren’t always tears that accompany, and the wound isn’t raw, but the scar is still there, and sometimes a glance at its ugliness is overwhelming. Why us? Why me? Why did I, with only one sibling, have to be left alone? But if I had to pick one of my friends to experience a similar loss, I couldn’t do it.

When I hear the first verse of Cry Out to Jesus by Third Day, my throat tightens up and my heart leaks from my eyes. And I’m reminded that I always have someone who hears my cries. Who dries my tears. He is the Ultimate Comforter.

I don’t write to gain sympathy. I write to process and relieve the pain in a way that gives freedom for someone else who is grieving, no matter the length of time, to understand that each of us handles it differently. It may get less intense or tears may become less frequent, but there is no statute of limitations on grief. I wish someone had informed me 40 years ago.

Universality: Strength in Numbers

love-in-any-language-is-the-same…Often it’s the smallest little detail shared that makes me realize I’m not alone in my struggles, nor can I overcome or move through them single-handedly. In this post from nearly a year ago, I wrote about stories – everyone has one, and all should be heard before instead of passing judgment. Stories are a significant part of keeping us connected with other human beings, reminding us that lessons can be learned from everything experienced in life. But relating to others’ stories is not the end-all for learning life lessons and feeling supported.

I provide my clients with a worksheet about the benefits and concepts of group work, because that is primarily the venue that is used in my position as a counselor. (It seems like group work was originally promoted for it’s financial benefit of serving more clients by using fewer resources. However, the more I facilitate groups, the more I see the other benefits as the most critical.) The worksheet lists various terms that are familiar to the average person, such as hope, tolerance, feedback, and imitation, and explains their meaning related to group work. Other words are not as familiar – insight, cohesiveness, altruism, catharsis, and universality. Universality is a big word, and some struggle to even say it, but it has a very down-to-earth meaning. The worksheet’s definition – “others have my problem.” There it is. That simple. Others have my problem.

One of the reasons we struggle with a problem so much is that our thoughts lead us to believe we’re alone. Isn’t that special? I’m so unique that I’m the only one with this problem? I could be famous, maybe, because no one else in the history of mankind has ever experienced this problem? Maybe they’ll make a movie about me? But then no one would understand it and no one could play my part, except for me. Why do we struggle and isolate, thinking that we will somehow gain kudos for handling a problem all by ourselves? Will someone really believe we’re less of a person, whiny, or weak because we share our challenges? I drill this concept into my clients, having them share their stories, and watching as walls of pain and judgment come down. When a friend or a client shares their situation with me, I don’t judge them. And yet, I hold back and feel alone because someone would think I’m crazy for the feelings I have about a challenging situation.

This week, I had a conversation with a forever-friend, and realized there are similarities in a specific struggle going on in our lives. As I felt comfortable to share and relate, my friend was free to share as well. I saw so clearly this lesson I work to help my clients understand. Others have my problem. The details are different, but the underlying issue is significantly similar and warrants the emotional stress it causes. And sharing it, getting it out, gave relief and a very personal understanding of what universality means. Someone else in my world understands from experience what this is like. (What a relief that I’m not crazy.) I would never wish similar problems on an enemy, much less a friend, but discovering that this is the case gave me a boost that I needed, as I hope it did to my friend.

I am not alone. I have friends all over the world and coworkers close by who lift me up and understand when issues are overwhelming. I am fortunate. I am blessed. I can get through the tough times, because I know someone understands what this feels like.

And knowing that helps me believe that others also have faith and hope and respect and kindness . . . and LOVE.