Leaving: Death and Termination

Last Wednesday morning, the day before my dad’s 21st death-a-versary, I drove away from the airport and towards work, leaving my mom on the curb for her to leave me and head back to Florida. Four years ago, I left her, moving to upstate New York. And a year and half ago, I moved farther way, moving here to Oregon.

We do so much leaving, us humans. Some out of convenience, some to save ourselves, some to become our true selves, to hide, for love, out of hatred, and most of all in death.

We leave, over and over and over again. And so it goes, and so it goes.

Dad died over 2 decades ago now. Now I’m 26.

Sometimes Society inquires,”Why aren’t you over it, Kristen?” like the idiot Society can be.

That’s 21 years of loss: of him not being with me, of significance he’s missed, that I’ve missed him; that’s 21 years without love from a man, a father-figure, a human to protect me from the cruel males who would try and have hurt me. That’s 21 years without hugs or affirmations and without a representative of what a man should be. My dad was flawed (we’re all and only human), but he was mine.

He’s gone, and every day the loss remains.

I work as a crisis therapist, working with suicidal youth. Two Wednesdays ago, a day I was on-call for hospital admits, I got called to the on-call supervisor’s office to be debriefed on a potential client before heading to the hospital to meet her. [Name of On-Call Supervisor] told me about a 16 year-old who attempted suicide on her daddy’s death anniversary. My dad’s death-a-versary was a week away then. I asked [Name of On-Call Supervisor] if we could close the door. She did. I wept, surprising both her and I, as I told her that I was experiencing counter-transference.

[Name of On-Call Supervisor] said she wouldn’t send me out. However, because of how they set up the schedule and to accommodate other therapists, I had to switch on-call days back with [Name of Another Therapist], causing me to be on-call Thursday again, the day my mom would fly into Portland, what I had been careful to avoid.

“Oh it’ll be fine,” said [Name of Current Supervisor]. “You know you’re going to see this a lot. A lot of our clients have dead parents.”

“If it weren’t September, I’d be fine,” I said.

“Is that why your mom is visiting?”

That night I went to The Dougy Center to volunteer with kids grieving the death of a parent.

The following night, Thursday, my mom and I had just made it into my apartment from the airport, and I hear the anxiety-provoking ringtone of my work phone. [Name of On-Call Supervisor] debriefs me on the kid I will see at the hospital that night, ASAP and within an hour as required. “Are you at the airport?”

“No. We just got to my apartment.”

“Okay. Does your mom know what you do?”


“Okay. Say ‘hi’ to her for me.”

“Mhmm bye.”

And that’s when I broke.

The crying in [Name of On-Call Supervisor]’s office was nothing. I was enraged. I TRIED. I’m sorry my dad died in September and that I didn’t go out to the admit the day prior. And now my brief time with my mom would be shortened by at least 4 hours. Where was the compassion? Why didn’t the counselors I worked with understand grief?

Tears shot down my face as I screamed to my mom about how much I hated seeing the ugliest sides of life at work.

“I HATE MY LIFE.” I sounded like my teenage clients, which I guess you can do when you’re with your mom.

What was I trying to prove with this job? Do I get extra life points for being miserable? What color would they paint me as a martyr? NOBODY CARES THAT I’M MISERABLE.

The emotional intensity I felt surpassed all that I had earlier that week breaking up with the boyfriend.

I am tired of seeing the effects of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other abuse presenting as suicidal ideation, violence/aggressive behavior, and cutting/self-harm (basically the causes and effects of pain—of people hurting people) and then going back to the office and being questioned if I’m good enough.

Goodness gracious, I’m sorry I’m not on Xanax or an SSRI, using alcohol, developing an eating disorder, or sleeping around to handle the horror and anxiety of this work like my coworkers. I’m sorry I cried at the office. I don’t like it either.

But I’m not sorry I’m human. And I’m not going to allow this job to take any more time away from me and certainly not any more time away from my loved-ones.

[Name of First Supervisor Who Never Wanted Me Hired in the First Place] was right all along: I’m not suitable for this job. She can smirk while she stomps her way down the hallways while she thinks she’s masking her deeply-set insecurity. She can have that.

Because here’s the truth and this also applies to the recent breakup with [Arrogant Doctor and Future Abusive Husband]: I have so much more to offer this world than completing the duties of this particular job.

We all leave each other for one reason or another. Sometimes we leave our jobs, too.

**I quit the next day, offering the organization a month’s notice, just as they begged for so that they wouldn’t be screwed over.

I quit appropriately on September 22nd, my dad’s death anniversary; albeit that symbolism was unplanned. If he were alive, I’m sure my dad would not want his daughter spending her one fleeting, precious life doing this work. As a dead dad, he knows how fleeting ‘fleeting’ really is.

The following Monday they fired me.**


Parent Death & Crisis Counseling

Another year has gone by—my dad died 21 years ago now—and what have I learned?

What I’ve learned or finally internalized and accepted: we all deal with parent death. It comes too soon or around the more natural, expected time. It’s either this or that we go first.

When I was a child, I thought, “At least my story is unique. All these kids running around at school? They don’t know what the death of their dad is like. I’m unique. I know loss. They know nothing.” You comfort yourself as you can. That’s human psychology for you. It’s a little ugly if you say it out loud.

So I thought I was unique. It helped, too, that my dad died in a plane crash in Alaska. “Ooo, magical,” I believed the kids I confided in thought. “Alaskaaaa,” they’d whisper in awe, as if Alaska is the same as Narnia, which to kids in Florida, where I grew up, I suppose it is.

While my story and the ultimate loss of a parent did change me, did shape me to a large degree, I was not unique. I did need something to cling to though—something positive to believe in out of this tragedy. I was the complex, special protagonist in the book of my life after all!

And yet: aren’t we all?

If we’re all and only human, then we all carry our losses, our regrets, our grief and our pain. We are unique, sort of, but the effects of this baggage we carry in our bodies all our lives are the same. Our specific experiences are different, sort of. It’s our coping of this baggage, this weight that we can feel physically if we pay attention, that differs, sort of. Even there, there is a finite list of options we have to deal. Some are healthy; some are not.

As a crisis therapist, a major goal with a client who is suicidal is to help them to decrease their use of unhealthy coping skills and to adopt and practice using healthy ones. This sounds too simple and rudimentary because it is. To do so is not as easy as that sentence was to write.

As a child after my dad died, I turned to God/Christianity, playing instruments, and writing. People can turn to these things or maybe drugs and less helpful avenues. I was lucky to have a mom who instilled the value of education and set the bar high. I was given goals to achieve. I had future-orientation. The death of my dad would not be the death of me.

Others don’t have that. I see that in my work. Many of my clients have dead parents. And these parents didn’t die in military mistakes and accidental plane crashes. They overdosed. They were murdered. Or maybe we don’t know where they are.

My clients are children and teenagers. Some of them have seen more than I’ve seen. Their baggage is very heavy. They’re indifferent about life, and I only hope I can help them find some reason to live—to redirect the conversation to finding some future-orientation, so that their baggage will not become the death of them.

We all lose and we all have loss. I don’t want them to lose their own lives before their lives really begin.

I get it now–that our experiences can only be so unique or unusual. It’s all been seen before and that doesn’t make our story matter any less.

I am the protagonist of my life, and I will have a pity party today. Perhaps you will, too.  And after we’re done acknowledging our baggage, I hope we both pick ourselves up and carry on. We have lives to live.



Listening to Rapists, as a Counselor

I just listened to two men disclose the details of their sex offenses—rapings of minor girls. I feel jittery—my blood is buzzing even now, sitting in a bar before a comedy open mic.

What is there to say? What insight do I have as a result of this?

My fingers gripped my other fingers in my lap and twirled my ring during their readings. By my own doing, I turned my skin white. The pressure kept me calm enough to stay seated, my only duty as a counselor in those moments—not to run out of the room or scream.

The humanity of it all and how far we fall… These men had remorse. They hurt. They wonder why. One—who didn’t even disclose tonight—cried, talking about how frustrated he is not understanding why he did what he did. Others reminded him that he’s new to treatment and that he’s here to learn. But later one of those same group members expressed that he didn’t know what motivated him to take the actions he did or what had “clicked” in him as he put it.

After working six months with these men, I thought I had become desensitized to what they’ve done. Every week, they check into group therapy by stating their charge and then describing it in plain terms. I hear it from their lips every week.

So what makes disclosure statements different? They give a voice to their victims; they leave a crack—through which we remember them—though we work with the sex offenders (SO’s).

But it’s more than being triggered with rage for victims. It’s different from my one self-destructive night back in November after I read one of their case files in full for the first time.

It’s them—the offenders—they’ve gotten to me. Their humanity and shame and the divide they stand in now after the irreparable damage they’ve caused.

They’ve considered suicide. None need to explain why.

Nothing can be fixed. Only forward motion.

They encouraged each other to forgive themselves—and each time that idea was rejected by the one receiving the advice. “How could I possibly?”

And it’s just that kind of situation, isn’t it?

About the sexual crimes: “How could you possibly?”

About moving on: “How could you possibly?” And yet, that’s what needs to be done.

I’ve recently adopted the idea of “Always Forward Motion” in my life, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant or messy. Progress. Ever better. Moving on. Again and again. Onward.

Until tonight I hadn’t thought about my SO clients and how this must apply to them as well.

It’s not that I’ve been self-centered or self-serving. Just self-improving.

But this is what the least of us (are SO’s the least of us? I don’t know; society might think so) do as well. Right?

If society—if (hu)man—is to improve, then all of us despite our pasts must keep going—always forward motion. Improvement. Not matter from how far away we’re starting.

So I find myself wanting the best for my clients. Not because I’m on their sides. Not because I have more compassion for them than I do the victims. But because I believe we are all and only human.

I don’t feel good hearing the details of their sex offenses. Tears sting behind my eyes even now hours later, threatening to ruin my comedy set tonight.

But details don’t change what I already knew. They don’t even bring clarity.

These men are flawed—and perhaps they’ve done something in their past worse than anything you’ll ever do—but aren’t we all? Aren’t we all flawed?

Maybe “always forward motion” begins with confession, guilt, and what reparations/amends can be made. But it begins.

And we all have to begin somewhere to move forward.


Touching People and Teaching Others to STOP TOUCHING PEOPLE

Life is a bit touchy. So am I.

Currently I’m working part time as a caregiver and part time as a counselor.

I support a client who is 95 and face the reality of mortality every time I see her. She’s lived. And lived. And lived. Soon she will die.

She is precious, resilient, stubborn, and needs me to help her pee.

I counsel sexual offenders who are adolescent boys and “men.” I face the reality of rape and violation of children’s and women’s bodies every time I see them. They’ve hurt. They’ve destroyed. Soon they will learn the concept of empathy.

They are not horrible at their essence but have done horrendous things. This I have to believe.

I sit with my elderly woman, while she munches on the oatmeal I made for her. I learn about WWII and what it was like for her to feed 8 mouths for dinner every night. I learn about what it was like to be a secretary (because what else is a woman going to be during her time?). I am told to not marry out of comfort right now.

My elderly woman is impressed by me—a young woman who moved across the country by herself.

“Do not marry. Don’t make that mistake. It is comforting to have a man there. But don’t marry until it’s right. Take your time. Remember that.”

“Alright. Hey, remember to chew with your back teeth. Yeah. There you go. Good.”

I sit with my adolescent sex offenders. I learn of the cluelessness and crazy manipulation that man is capable of. I counsel, but really, I’m teaching relapse prevention.

“I didn’t know incest was wrong, really.”

“I mean, yeah, she was drunk but we were going out so, like…”

“She was coming on to me. Swear to God.”

I teach them what true consent is, what thinking errors are and make them identify theirs, how to deal with anger more effectively/healthily. I ask if they’ve been abstinent from drugs, alcohol, and porn. (They have polygraphs every 6 months done by the county, too.)

Every group therapy session they check in by sharing what their week was like, how many times they masturbated, and of that the percentage of appropriate fantasies.  (I guess we’re really trying to get them to work their imaginations because they can’t use the porn anymore, making getting off a little harder.)

I go to my next caregiving shift and give my client a shower. I wash her, gently in circles with a soft washcloth and her special soap. As I rinse her back I realize how precious these moments are.

I’m touching the skin of a woman 70 years my senior. I’m taking care of someone through touch.

My clients of sexual offenses have destroyed others through touch.

Touch can heal, or touch can hurt.

I’ve chosen to do the former and teach others to never do the latter again.

A Masters and A Move

I didn’t take a counseling job when I moved out to the West Coast a couple months ago.

Not a lot of people knew that—that I didn’t have my heart set on becoming a counselor anymore. I didn’t talk because I already had people’s unsolicited feedback on my move across the country.

Risky, they said.

Risky, sure, I agreed. Sounds like life, I thought.

I wouldn’t (do it), they said.

Good thing you’re not, I thought.

Sure, I said.

For the past couple years, I had lived in upstate New York, working towards a Masters in Mental Health Counseling, a degree earned in two ways—academically and emotionally. Unsurprisingly then, my perspective of myself and the world shifted.

I used to be think I should take care of everyone else, be a person who makes every effort to ensure other’s comfort, while ignoring my own needs. I thought nothing else could be as admirable.

Now I get it. I don’t have to claim to be fine when I’m not. I matter just as much as everyone else. My feelings have merit; they are information and should not be ignored.

This shift in perspective brought upon a change in how I saw my career path. I no longer need to be counselor because I no longer believe that that role is be the only thing to give me worth.

I desire the world to smile upon me, with approval of my achievements. But the truth is that I am not my achievements. I am not my appearance, my body, my materials.

I am an accumulation of everything I have ever experienced. I am human spirit, hopeful and fearful, receiving and offering love. I am not defined by the world’s expectations unless I allow myself to be.

When I realized I could do whatever I wanted, I decided to move across the country, without a job and full of hope.

I applied to some counseling jobs. I received some feedback. Then a different opportunity presented itself, and I took this job.

Then I worried: What will people back in Rochester think? What will family think? It’s not a counseling job. I’m not using my degree. Should I be ashamed?

Then I remembered: These are my choices. Of course some people are going to disagree, but I don’t need to allow that to bother me. I am confident with my choice.