Tag Archives: Mental Health

to drop the number


Based on the first few minutes, it seemed like Schizophrenia joined my client during our initial session. I had already been told that she wasn’t comfortable having the door to the office closed, that she stared extra carefully at everything in the room, and that “something isn’t quite right.”

I find her across the parking lot smoking a cigarette during the few minutes between when she had been seen for initial paperwork, and when I called for her to come in for an initial assessment and conversation. Perhaps, I thought as I walked slowly across the parking lot working hard to come across safely and respectfully, she gets anxious in waiting rooms with many other people, so a cigarette provides a space of solace while waiting for whoever has more power than her in the next meeting she will sit through.

My name’s Donald, and if it’s okay with you, I’m privileged to be the clinician who gets to talk to you today.

Nod. Cigarette thrown in the bushes. Handshake. Steady stare into my eyes.

“Nice to meet you, Sir.”

Call me Donald.

We get into my office, and after pleasantries and explanations, she is gracious enough to sit through an hour of the kinds of personal questions I would walk out on were someone else to meet me and begin asking me within a few minutes.

Pages after pages of computer-driven questions that are shaped in the form of inquiries about the client but ultimately are answering questions for insurance companies, attorneys, liability assessment tools, and commissioners from all kinds of offices were completed.

“How are we doing so far? Is this okay for you? Are these questions bothering you? Are you okay still being here?”

Nod. Steady stare into my eyes.

We finished all the initial questions.
Mid forties now, and in and out of prison since the age of 18.
Out of lockup for six months, and scared to death that she will get sent back.
Sexually and physically abused by family members around the age of six and seven.
At the mercy now of probation officers, poorly-run treatment center directors, and the goodwill of others, like me, who she’s been told she has to talk to before she can be “better.”

I go through my spiel that has become quite common, and more true each time I say it, about the respect I have for women and men who make it through prison and work their damnedest to stay out of prison.

“I need to be free. I can’t go back. To go back is to die, and I don’t want to die.”

And after the entire conversation, it’s her turn to sign the freaky little plastic pad with the awkward little plastic pen that shows up on the computer as a weird version of a signature.

One more blow to whatever identity she has left to fight for.

I watch the screen as she watches the electronic signature pad. She writes her last name, the first letter of her first, and then a five digit number.

“What’s that number?”

That’s my number. That’s who I am. It has to be with my signature.

Inmate number, now stuck to a signature.

I looked her in the eyes, shook her hand, and stared longer than feels normal.

“When we are done meeting, my hope for you is that you don’t think to sign that inmate number to your name anymore.”

“Why’s that? It’s my number.”

Our work in the days ahead will be an uphill climb that deals with responsibility and childhood abuse and complex trauma and depression and anxiety and agoraphobia. But if I have any respect for her, our work will include a deep and thick reminder that she is not identified and will not leave her mark in ways that reflect her inmate number.

If she is capable of more that I can think or imagine, and more than she can think or imagine, than she is, right now whether she agrees to it or not, more than a number.

She has a name. And that’s that.
And to find her true name, we have to learn to drop the number.

Pine Tree Dr.

Image from this article on Slate.com: “Trapped: The Mentally Ill in Prison.”

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when it’s worth saying

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She held her hands over her mouth
most of the time she talked,
which I’ve been trained to know means
she’s not sure about what she’s saying
and she isn’t sure it’s worth someone else hearing

I find out soon enough
that her pastor tells her she can’t get divorced
even after she knows she’s gotten
an STD from him
a reputation from him
a history and an internalized notion of not being enough for him

but she can’t get divorced from him
so my only hope
and maybe her only hope is
to help her feel strong enough
to know she is strong enough
to stand up to him and maybe
to stand up to her pastor

to say that she thinks
just maybe
even though all of her life has suggested otherwise
that she is worth standing up for herself
and that she is worth having someone else stand up for her. ‘

poverty and power and religion and resources
blur the lines between
what God desires for his people
and what his people end up living through.

and it is, in fact, his people who are called
to put up a fight.
And we, then, cover our mouths as well
because we aren’t sure about what we’re saying
and if it’s worth someone else hearing.

Summar Dr.

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from the archives | loss as loss, not as lesson


In reflecting on the upcoming one-year anniversary of mosthopeful.com on August 23, I’m throwing some of the posts that readers have looked at the most back into the mix. Thanks for allowing me the space. It’s been a most humbling experience.

Below is the most viewed post from the blog over the last year, the first year of the blog. Thanks to the friends, families, and clients who have helped me grow in understanding and practice as it involves those grieving, and for helping me learn that we are all learning how to live in a world that is not yet whole.


View the original post and comments from March 12, 2012


loss as loss, not as lesson


Loss as loss, not as lesson

Maybe it springs from our own deep need to protect ourselves when we know we cannot.

When a tragedy happens of some kind, especially the loss of a son or friend to a kind of accidental death, it is our nature to jump to working at meaning-making. When someone is lost to old age, or even long-term illness, there are many bedside conversations that make space for meaning to be made.

I am sorry for this.
I want you to know this.
I wish we had this.
I want us to do this.

You mean this to me.
You taught me this.
You are loved.

But when an accident happens, or a sudden death, or a suicide, or a crime…
There is no time for words to fill the space.
No hands touching hands.
No way to know they know.

And so we end up stuck on this side of the sleep, trying our damnedest to make sense of the whole thing. We look into every question we could possibly ask to make meaning, and there is none to be found. Often those closest to the loss are stuck spinning in the losing itself, until they can solve it, keep it from having ever happened, get those last words in.

Which of course, proves meaningless as well.

And then there are the onlookers among us, tucking our children in at night, kissing our spouse, patting our buddies on the back, and wondering what we would ever do if we were to lose them.

That’s when we find ourselves making the loss a lesson, as if that makes it worth happening. As if it protects us from it happening to us or those we love. We begin to talk about how “it has taught us …”

And there is an illusion to our nature of doing this that suggests there is meaning as long as we learn something from it. If we make a tragic loss a lesson, it won’t be meaningless anymore.

But I don’t want my dead son, spouse, buddy to be a lesson; I want them to be my son, spouse, buddy. We want lives to be meaningful, not deaths. We want to say their names and images of life, not tragedy, to be conjured up. And when they are gone, especially when I didn’t have time to make meaning with them, I want to grieve. And I want them to be remembered for what their lives taught others, not their meaningless, untimely, horribly tragic death.

The meaning is in remembering who they were.
The grief is in losing them to begin with.

The loss is a loss.
It is not things as they should be.
It is before all things are made new.

There is, however, meaning in remembering.
And grief is not our enemy, but a sign that we have hearts full of love and woven with connection.
In our caring for the greiving, may we, like our God, be close to those whose hearts are breaking.

Breaking hearts are not a lesson; they are breaking hearts.
And they, in themselves, are worth all the world.

Pine Tree Dr.


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when others tell their stories

It often takes only a few minutes into a counseling session for me to realize that I have no way of speaking solutions into the room. A story begins, a tear drops, and people began to share with me the kinds of things I would never be brave enough to speak out loud to another…or myself for that matter. And after only a little bit of training in graduate school, I learned that me offering advice isn’t the craft of therapy to begin with.

And it also doesn’t take long to realize the kind of disrespect or arrogance that my solution-speaking or advice-offering would actually be suggesting. It seems, when I think about it for a moment, that in no situation would I ever allow someone who has talked to me for thirty minutes, once a week, for a month, tell me what to do with my life or how to orient my grief or what to do in my marriage.

And yet the role of counselor or therapist or even pastor sometimes has those connotations attached.

So in a kind of powerlessness, when others begin their stories, begin to tell the truth about the life they have been living in and wrestling with and learning from since birth, my only option is to switch into the mode of curiosity. And in that curiosity, I become another human being in the room, asking questions that the person sitting across from me may never have asked before even to themselves.

And in the magic of the room, new things are learned. New things are learned for my own life and for the client’s life.

Good helping doesn’t come from being the answer-man, but rather from being the questioner, a facilitator of the insight that is buried within the person who has come in seeking counsel. And more often than not, as two human beings sit in the room listening to each other in spaces that don’t judge, don’t lie, don’t have other agendas… people find their ways.

There is a deep, dangerous humanity in offering to simply bear witness to the grief, pain, fear, horror, loss, confusion or despair of another. And in staring it in the face, we both become, together, a little more human.

Pine Tree Dr.

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