midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the tag “counseling”

Good Money

When I would tell people I got a new job to start a new career in another state and would be moving, one of the first questions they’d inevitably ask was, “How much will you be making?” Or, so as to be less crass, “Will you be making good money?”PileOfMoney

In our competitive, capitalist, consumerist society, it is only natural that money is the first thing that comes to mind when someone accepts a new position. To be sure, why would anyone choose to move more than 500 miles and three states away for a job if not to make good money?

I had three answers for that question, and all had validity:

  1. Yes, of course I would be making good money, because there’s no such thing as bad money.
  2. No, I wouldn’t be making good money, compared to the much better money I had made in previous jobs.
  3. None of your friggin’ business what kind of money!

The answer is not simple. My job as a therapist under a two-year provisional license pays considerably less than my previous positions in public relations. I am at the entry level in the mental health field, where salaries and pay, though variable depending upon many factors, are relatively low compared to many other professions.

However, my job pays considerably more annually than the series of Gig Economy counseling internships and part-time and temporary jobs I had pieced together for the final two years of my counseling master’s degree program after leaving my full-time job. So viewed from that perspective, my new job does pay good money, and I’m grateful for that.

In midlife, we evaluate what we’ve already done and what we’d like to do with our remaining years, which no longer seem infinite. Priorities change, as we shift from the achievement-oriented, ladder-climbing, self-focused goals of younger adulthood to an increased desire to make a contribution to others, pursue meaningful activities and leave a legacy. My change to a career in counseling reflects the internal re-evaluations of the midlife transitional period.

When you realign priorities and make a significant change, there will be sacrifices. For me, one of those was money – good money. I knew that consequence of my decision from the start, when I embarked on the graduate program nearly six years before actually entering the counseling field. But I ignored that inescapable fact at the time.

Now that my new level of pay is a reality, I’m adjusting my life and budget to match. I may not yet qualify as a full-fledged Minimalist, but I’ve moved closer to that end of the scale in my spending, decision-making and thinking.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of making money – good money – or pretend I don’t care. It certainly helps in many ways and I always endeavored to make good money – at least the best I could in any given circumstance. I’d certainly rather be well-off and feel secure than poor and living anxiously paycheck to paycheck. Wouldn’t everyone? Fortunately, I have some financial cushion, enough to allow me to overcome the financial anxieties of making a career change, but far below some golden threshold to claim money doesn’t really matter.

But making ever more good money – however one defines it — isn’t the end-all be-all path to an ever more glorious Shangri-La, as a 2010 Princeton University study concluded. The Princeton researchers found that no matter how much more than $75,000 per year that a person earned, their “degree of happiness,” or emotional well-being did not increase. It also found that, though earning less than $75,000 in and of itself did not cause people to feel more unhappy, it did magnify and intensify negative feelings from life problems they had.

Beyond the practical realities of how I spend and the reduced margin of discretionary money available to save or burn compared to my previous work life, I’ve had to make a humbling mental adjustment: Here I am, in my 50s, peak earning years, with two graduate degrees, making less than half of what I made at my last full-time job, and less than or equivalent to many workers with much less education or years of experience than I have. Yet, I would still contend I am making good money, not bad money.

I gain fulfillment and a sense of purpose and contribution from counseling people and helping them improve their lives. Work is stimulating, rewarding and challenging, which I couldn’t always claim before. I look forward to my future in this new profession, and its many opportunities for learning, growth and entrepreneurship.

For those reasons, I know I can take this to the bank: I am making good money, with the promise of better money to come. When you truly enjoy what you are doing for a living and apply yourself with a passion because of that, the money naturally tends to follow. Good money.

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Sweating it out to the End

I was sitting in the sauna after a swim, trying to meditate (and lose a pound), when the thought hit me (a welcome thought, nevertheless showing I don’t know how to meditate): the only thing separating me from graduation with a clinical mental health counseling master’s degree was one more paper, the fourth chapter of a final project.

In the heat, I felt a surge of accomplishment, the dripping sweat an appropriate metaphor for the 5 ½-year graduate school and internship marathon. I reflected on all that had happened during that time – a broken leg requiring surgery and a year of

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These grads, including my son Daniel (left), are younger than me, but I’ll be celebrating the same experience soon.

recovery; turning 50; my mother dying; leaving a seven-year job under contentious and demoralizing circumstances; both of my kids leaving for college – and felt amazed I had arrived at this moment. I had nearly dropped out after the first of my 22 classes and three internships, the path seemed so complicated and daunting.

 

So other than giving myself a pat on the back for perseverance, what can my experience say about sweating it out for a goal at midlife that perhaps could resonate with others?

  • Personal growth and development keeps life interesting. I feel more alive and engaged with new challenges and goals to pursue, and restless when I feel stagnated and mired in routine.
  • It’s never too late to learn new things or set new goals. Changing careers is another matter entirely that involves issues of practicality, responsibility, risk and sacrifice. But those complexities shouldn’t preclude exploration.
  • Moving forward on faith can work out, and could be a necessity for progress. Sometimes pushing through doubts is the only way forward. I still don’t know how my whole counseling endeavor ultimately will work out, but I have faith that it will. Needing a guarantee on an outcome may preclude the journey.
  • Find a way. Don’t let something that seems too hard stop you, if you can creatively discover ways to make it work, even just one step at a time, especially if you believe you might live with regret for giving up on a goal or dream too easily. I feared living with regret, which helped propel me to continue grinding ahead. Sometimes “a way” may seem impossible, but perhaps as likely self-imposed limits make it seem so.
  • Pursuing something new, whether a hobby, pastime, education or career, can bring you into contact with a new community that can enrich your life. The people I’ve met through my graduate program have provided community, enhancing my life and helping me learn.

I’m sure hoping this new counseling gig works out. I entered the Loyola University-Maryland Pastoral Counseling program at age 48. Back then, I couldn’t imagine getting to the end, which has now arrived at age 54. I’m excited to see where it leads. At the least, it will open up a whole new range of opportunities and a greater chance to self-direct my career – possibly in the form of my own business and other entrepreneurial endeavors – as I head into its latter stages. I’m feeling now all the sweat I’ve poured into it has been worthwhile.

[In a serendipitous coincidence, my graduation is the same day as my daughter Rebecca’s graduation from the University of Maryland. Read about my decision of whose big day to attend.]

‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

No More ‘Working for The Man’ Just for Health Insurance

pic_0123On the eve of the first Obamacare (Affordable Care Act) mano-a-mano showdown in Congress – well, at least the participants were in the same boxing ring – I re-emphasize my position that after all the overinflated chatter is aired and convoluted schemes are floated, the only real, efficient, cost-effective and sustainable solution is a single-payer health care system (Medicare for All, universal health care coverage).

I’ll give the Republicans a chance, with their Repeal and Replace initiative (or Repeal and Posture, or Repeal and Delay, or Repeal and High-Five) and monitor the trends and see where we are a few years after implementation. As I advocated on my sister blog site Sirenian Publishing, the Democrats should not participate in crafting an Obamacare Replacement, so it will be a pristinely GOP invention without Democratic fingerprints and can be evaluated as such.

Why discuss Obamacare in a midlife blog? Because I’m one step away from needing health insurance through a system like Obamacare, and I may need that program or something similar in the future as I grapple with transition and living authentically in midlife.

In my transition to a new career as a mental health counselor, I eventually had to leave full-time employment to meet my graduate program’s internship and class requirements. And with that move went my health insurance. I was lucky I have a wife with an employer-sponsored plan that I could join. But we all know how tenuous are jobs – and the potluck health insurance that may come with them – in today’s economy.

I’ve written about joining the Gig Economy since my transition, working multiple part-time, temporary, or entrepreneurial jobs with no health insurance or other benefits to cobble together an income. While I may sometime again have a full-time job with health insurance benefits, I plan to stay a member of the Gig Economy for the rest of my career by establishing an independent counseling practice. And I abhor the thought of health insurance posing a major barrier to venturing out on my own. A single-payer health care system, or perhaps an Obamacare-like system, could remove that impediment for me and many others with an entrepreneurial bent who no longer want to be obligated to ‘working for The Man’ just so they can have health insurance.

I wrote extensively about the merits of a nonprofit single-payer system and the tribulations of Obamacare in my political memoir about my campaign for Maryland delegate, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Get Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, as advocating for a more equitable, less costly health care system was a cornerstone of my campaign.

Read more about the looming health care battle below…

Sirenian Publishing Blog Post: No Democratic Lifeline for ‘Repeal and Replace’

New Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said if congressional Republicans, in conjunction with President-elect Donald Trump’s exhortations, vote to repeal Obamacare, Democrats won’t participate in crafting a so-called “replacement.”

“If they repeal without a replacement, they will own it,” Schumer told The Washington Post. “Democrats will not then step up to the plate and come up with a half-baked solution that we will partially own. It’s all theirs.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Schumer’s approach and urge Democrats to stick to that plan, instead of capitulating to the Republicans and trying to modify or soften whatever plan the GOP hatches once health care coverage is thrown into uncertainty, or worse, chaos, and millions potentially suffer.

To do so would be akin to the Democrats turning over ownership of a marginally inhabitable building to the Republicans, who level it with a wrecking ball and wander aimlessly through the rubble, only to have the Democrats return with hard hats and shovels and mortar to salvage the wreckage, with the promise, “We’ll help you rebuild from these ruins, but we gotta warn ya, dollars to donuts, this building will be condemned.”

As I advised Democrats previously, Do The Opposite, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza. The GOP will expect Democrats to come running to save the day for people who may be losers in the Obamacare tug-of-war. Then they will become complicit in whatever is enacted. Then they can be blamed for screwing up whatever plan Republicans wanted to enact in the first place, which of course will be the reason said GOP plan isn’t working as effectively as touted. Don’t do it. Let the GOP plan ride; measure the results.

I argued in my political memoir detailing my campaign for Maryland state political office, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, that Obamacare is largely a piece of legislative manure that leaves the foxes – the health insurance industry – guarding the henhouse, but that it’s certainly an improvement and does a number of good things for people who need health insurance.

“Obamacare is a Rubik’s Cube—lots of turning, spinning, head-scratching, reverses, glitches, bad moves and confusion,” I wrote in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “Historic and groundbreaking yet torturously overwrought, the law certainly does some good, but adds yet another layer of preposterous bureaucracy and complexity and supposed ‘consumer choice,’ which really is massive consumer overload and confusion, onto a preexisting byzantine miscreation, and will become another cement-hardened convention impossible to undo.”

My campaign for Maryland state delegate in 2014 was largely based on advocating for accessible, affordable health care for all – universal health care, single-payer health care, Medicare for All – whatever you want to label it. My call was for a system that covered everyone, regardless of employment status or personal wealth, one that constituted a right rather than a privilege, and that reduced the corporate profit motive. It was for a more humane system that would put Maryland – and ideally, ultimately, the rest of the nation – in line with the rest of the democratic, industrialized nations that provide all their citizens basic health care at about half the cost or less per person than the U.S., and achieve better health outcomes on many common measures.

Numerous grassroots and health care organizations continue advocating for such a system, and several state legislatures have made attempts to establish one. But entrenched, opposing, big-money interests are strong – hence, Obamacare was the best we could get.

Wendell Potter, a health insurance public relations executive turned industry critic, nailed the dynamic in his insider tell-all book Deadly Spin, as I quoted in Don’t Knock, He’s Dead. “The health insurance industry is dominated by a cartel of large, for-profit corporations…[T]he top priority…is to ‘enhance shareholder value.’ When that’s your top priority, you are motivated more by the obligation to meet Wall Street’s relentless profit expectations than by the obligation to meet the medical needs of your policyholders.”

I still believe a single-payer system is the only real, equitable, sustainable solution to the ongoing health care mess. Perhaps a failed “replacement plan” full of tired old ideas like Medical Savings Accounts and insurance sold across state lines and free market competition that can be laid squarely at the feet of Republicans could stoke a revival of a single-payer revolution.

Of course, that will bring out the critics and naysayers who will charge that single-payer is an un-American, “socialist” system, an asinine argument. What is Medicare? What is Medicaid? What is Social Security? Socialistic! For that matter, what are our police forces and fire departments and public schools and state universities? Socialistic! We all contribute toward them because these systems and institutions are deemed to be beneficial to society collectively. American rugged individualism is a great concept. But in some aspects, like outstanding health care and the overall health of our citizenry, we are all in this together, and will be stronger as a nation for that.

So, as Schumer said, no lifeline. There could be regression and pain in the short-term, but maybe it could turn the tide for the long-term.

Thoughts on Struggle, Resilience, Gratitude and Grace

Counseling has given me a new perspective on struggle, resilience, gratitude and grace, at this time of year when we may slow down enough to think about these phenomegracena.

I’m working as a therapist intern at a mental health agency in Baltimore that serves low-income clients. Many have substance abuse problems. Some have been drug dealers. Some have spent time in prison. Many have been victims of crime or domestic abuse; some have perpetrated violent crimes.

Some have been homeless or evicted with no place to go, and some are on the verge of homelessness. Some are shunned by their families. Some were criminally abused or neglected as children.

All are struggling mightily, yet they have resilience. They want better. They want to overcome. They don’t quit. The question, however, is always: How motivated are they to change? When I think about resilience I’ve had to summon to face challenges, it doesn’t compare.

Many of our clients are on the margins of society, nearly invisible. Many have dropped out of the job market. Some want to return, but it’s a struggle to re-enter. Some have become isolated or reclusive, out of distrust or fear of failure, rejection or disappointment. They want independence, but it’s a struggle to get there; many have to lean on others for help. It’s easy to see: Once you fall into a hole, the climb to emerge can be arduous.

They are grateful for people who care about them, whether a therapist, a social worker or a friend or family member who stuck by them during difficult times when others didn’t. They are grateful for sobriety, kids and grandkids, and new chances.

Our clients inhabit a world and have lived through experiences with which I had no familiarity until my counseling internships. For the clients who have let me into their worlds and taught me about the enormous challenges they both inherited and created themselves, I am grateful. They have blessed me with a real-world education that books and classes can’t approximate. I hope I am providing a certain kind of education for them in return.

As for grace, Gerald G. May, M.D. described “living into grace” in Addiction & Grace:

“Living into the mystery of grace requires encountering grace as a real gift. Grace is not earned. It is not accomplished or achieved…It is just given.

“But living into grace does not depend upon simple receptivity alone. It also requires an active attempt to live life in accord with the facts of grace [which]…are simple: grace always exists, it is always available, it is always good, and it is always victorious…

“The risk, of course, is to my addictions; if I try to live in accord with grace, then I will be relinquishing the gods I have made of my attachments…I must make conscious efforts of will; I must struggle with myself if I am going to act in accord with those facts. Living into grace requires taking risks of faith.”

As we enter a new year, I hope and pray our clients are able to recognize grace working in their lives and find the strength to take the risks of faith to live into grace.

Is the Grass Greener?

I typically believe the grass is greener on the other side, just over the next hill. It may be self-delusional or wishful thinking, but it’s my nature, however torturous it can be, to believe there’s something better.

Such thinking can be the curse of people who are never satisfied with life and what they grassfield_greenerhave, always seeking, never arriving. Or it can be the motivation that leads to risk-taking, improvement and growth.

I have been seeking greener grass in my career through a marathon five-year journey, and now that I’m on the brink of making a transition from public relations to mental health counseling after what will be 22 graduate courses and two years of internships — and one collapsed full-time job along with its reliable income under all that weight — I am pretty confident that the fescue indeed will be brighter.

I also have been thinking that as I launch my new career in 2017 – which will include, ideally and ultimately, my own independent practice – that a new geographic location may offer greener pastures than the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis where I have been stationed for 28 years, business-, lifestyle-, scenery- and culture-wise.

My thinking is that the time to make a geographic change would coincide with my career transition, or at least relatively early in my new career, before becoming established in one place.

I also will be 54, far into midlife, by the time I graduate the counseling program. If I go somewhere else, I want to be young enough to become engaged in the fabric of the new community occupationally, socially, civically, recreationally and other ways, not just to live out retirement (which I don’t know if I will ever want to reach anyway).

I have already had people advise me against moving, telling me essentially that the grass is not greener, that the desire for something fresh and new is merely a cover for a compulsion to escape.

The idea of moving is complicated by several factors, primarily family concerns. Some factors I believe are manageable: I don’t have a big fear of change; the move wouldn’t necessarily be irreversible if it didn’t work out; I believe I could make new friends and keep old ones with some effort; I am confident I can earn a living and be successful starting a business, though research is needed.

But family, that is the hardest one to gauge. I’m a new empty-nester. Both of my kids are attending Maryland colleges. My daughter will graduate the same weekend I will in 2017. She may go to France to teach English; she may follow her boyfriend to an engineering job in Texas or beyond; or she may stay in Maryland. My son will have at least two years left. My extended family is small and scattered.

My wife’s family and her roots are in Maryland. She doesn’t want to leave. I understand. Many would argue that factor alone should kibosh the whole idea. And perhaps it will. Or perhaps there could be room for compromise and negotiation as events unfold and more is discovered.

There’s no doubt that the belief that the grass could be greener can complicate life and cause angst. But it’s also a belief that gives those prone to seeking an excitement about the unknown, about a new experience, about what could be around that next corner, over that next hill. Will it be emerald green, or drought-baked brown?

Joining the Gig Economy

I am a member of the Gig Economy.

I didn’t plan to join. It just evolved.

Giggers don’t count. We’re under the radar. The U.S. Bureau of Labor can’t find us for all its employment reports. We’re a step above underground. We exist in the netherworld between employed and unemployed, worker and slacker. Above all, we are free agents, with shallow allegiances, if any.

Nothing is secure. Nothing is long-term. Nothing is permanent. But then again, that applies to most traditional jobs nowadays, except for government employment. Those who convince themselves otherwise are fooling themselves.

If I don’t work, I don’t get paid. In my circumstance, sometimes even when I do work, I don’t get paid. There are no benefits – except the ability to say “yes” or “no” to anything, and to make your own choices, agreements and schedule. No paid vacation, no sick leave, no retirement savings programs, no health or life insurance. Not even any guarantee of hours or certain amount of pay per week.

Income is unpredictable. One thing that is predictable is that Giggers will constantly be scrambling for income, replacing one lost or concluded gig with another.

An October 13, 2016 CNBC report said employment in the Gig Economy is growing “far faster” than traditional payroll employment, according to a Brookings Institution study. An author of the report said the data showed a trend indicating a “potentially seismic reorganization” of the economy and employment arrangements.

Until a year ago, I counted. I was included in the Labor category “Employed.” For the previous 10 years, I held two traditional jobs, with a salary and benefits. As long as I showed up each day, I could get paid the same, whether I surfed the Internet all day and took two-hour lunches or hunkered down and grinded on the corporation’s mission. Not anymore.

At the same time I began the two-year internship portion of my interminable master’s degree program in counseling – a minimum 12-to-15 hour weekly commitment – my full-time public relations job started going south because of institutional disarray. My employer and I soon ended our union. I was suddenly without the safety net of the full-time, permanent gig, except for the frayed, patchwork, hole-ridden net of the Gig Economy.

I fell back on teaching tennis, which I had done during other periods of unemployment, and ramped up my hours as a counseling intern at an outpatient mental health center, something that was impossible to do while working full-time and which significantly aided me in meeting my master’s degree requirements. But my income was in the toilet.

I landed a great gig for the summer, between academic semesters and internships, as a tennis teacher at a resort in Bethany Beach, DE. But like many gigs, it was short-term,

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A gig at the Bethany Beach, DE Bandstand, where I had a summer gig as a tennis teacher.

offered no benefits, and produced an unpredictable income stream. For the time I taught on court, I made decent money. If I wasn’t teaching – waiting around at the club for the next paying hour or bumped out of teaching because of too little customer demand and my low ranking on the pecking order of tennis pros – I made minimum wage. I taught a good amount over the summer – but also spent much time earning $8.25 per hour. The job ran parallel with vacation season, late May to Labor Day.

 

At 4 p.m. on Labor Day, the gig was up and my income ceased. Now I’m cobbling together an income from three sources – another counseling internship, where I’m lucky I get paid at all, but only at half-rate and only when erratic and inconsistent clients show up; a writing tutor job at Loyola University, where I’m a student; and itinerant tennis teaching. I’m working erratic hours seven days a week. And I’m still searching for more work – more regular and consistent tennis teaching to maximize income for my still-available, Swiss-cheese hours.

The nature of membership in the Gig Economy is to be in a constant state of searching and scrambling for the next gig, the most reliable gig, the best-paying gig for the time we must devote to it. We can’t rest, lest the hour glass runs out. We have to see beyond the horizon, because everything ends or fizzles out. We have to be chess players, thinking three or four moves ahead.

But membership in the Gig Economy has its advantages. I’m much happier with my work than I was at my last job. I have flexibility and control over my schedule. I have variety. I’m not bored at anything I do. I can move on when I feel like it with little angst. I like the direction I’m moving. I’m more free and self-directed.

I may hold other permanent jobs in the future, likely in a counseling capacity. But I’m also pretty certain I will be retaining membership in the Gig Economy for the rest of my working life in one form or another. It’s just a matter of putting all the necessary pieces together. I am a free agent, and I like it that way.

Drunken Debacles

Ed’s Chicken & Crabs, referred to by my family as Ed’s Chicken Shack, a landmark in laid-back, party-hard Dewey Beach, DE for nearly 40 years where you could order consummate beach dinners of crabs, chicken, fried clams, hush puppies and corn on the cob from the take-out window and eat on picnic benches outside as the sun set, was reduced to a pile of charred wood and scorched, twisted metal in a fire this summer.

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Ed’s Chicken & Crabs, a Dewey Beach institution burned to the ground by a drunken driver.

 

The fire wasn’t caused by a kitchen or grease mishap. Neither was it caused by an arsonist, a careless smoker or an electrical misfiring. Unbelievably, it was caused by a drunken motorist at 2 a.m. who crossed the raised road median on Dewey’s main drag and four lanes of traffic and slammed into a propane line in the eatery, igniting the blaze.

Luckily, the 36-year-old woman’s life was saved by first responders. The owner of Ed’s and its devoted Dewey Beach patrons weren’t as lucky. Ed is 83 years old and said he doesn’t plan to rebuild. A drunken woman put him out of business and left an eyesore of rubble in the middle of the classically honky-tonk beach town.

A beach institution is destroyed and a man’s livelihood and surely a piece of his soul wrecked by a brazen act of drunkenness committed by someone of an age where one would hope maturity and individual responsibility would triumph over atrociously bad judgment and decision-making. But that is not always the case when alcohol is involved, as Baltimoreans witnessed in the death of cyclist Tom Palermo, run over on a sunny afternoon by a drunken, high-ranking clergy member.

Speaking of drunken debacles, I experienced first-hand observation of a rapid descent into the throes of alcoholism during my summer in Bethany Beach, DE. An adverse life event pushed someone I was close to into a multi-week, nonstop bender. I had never seen alcoholism so up-close and devastatingly real before.

The fall was incredibly rapid and far by someone who said he had been sober for three years. In the course of a few days of drinking, I could barely recognize this person from the one I knew previously, sober. It was a stunning and sad transformation, and no one could do anything about it but the drinker.

A recovering alcoholic who knew both of us counseled me about what I could expect from my friend. Don’t believe everything my friend said and expect the friend to do things in secrecy out of shame, the sober recovering alcoholic told me. Expect the plunge to go deeper and deeper until my friend ends up in the hospital or in jail, he said. That nearly did happen – my friend hurt himself physically on several occasions, got kicked out of a bar/restaurant, and had to be picked up from the roadside.

Finally, the recovering alcoholic advised, don’t expect my friend to be able to pull out of drunkenness by sheer force of willpower. That display of personal strength against the pull of alcohol rarely happens, he counseled.

He knew from experience, that of himself and many friends and acquaintances he had met through his own journey to recovery. The first step, he said, is the alcoholic realizing he needs help, wanting help, and being ready to seek help. Detox, professional help and support is necessary for recovery. And that can’t happen until the lies to self and others stop, he said.

I tried to offer my friend help as much as I could. But, as the recovering alcoholic advised, you can’t force an alcoholic to accept help, you can only offer, and often my friend did not take me up on my offer to seek the help he needed.

Sometimes I sought to help, but in the wrong way. Like the time when my friend, who did not have a car, wrecked his bike and messed up the chain. My friend was unsuccessfully trying to fix the chain at 11 p.m. and called for my assistance. Why the obsession to fix the chain so late at night? The bike was his only source of transportation and a necessary component for refueling the binge.

Eventually, both of us went our separate ways. We were each there only for the summer, like so many people who are employed in a beach town. My friend got his act together enough to leave town for his next stop. But like many alcoholics, he was overwhelmed by  logistics and decisions.

I don’t know yet if he was able to pull himself up from his fall through sheer force of will – against the odds, as the recovering alcoholic explained to me – and get back on a good track. I truly hope so, or if not, that he got the help he needs. He will always be my friend for the experiences we shared together, good and bad, and I will always remember him for those same reasons, whether our paths cross again or not. I learned a lot from him – not just about alcoholism, which is important knowledge in the line of work I’m entering, counseling, but many other things of positive value.

I wish my friend safety, health, sobriety and Godspeed – freedom from the devastating effects and ruined relationships caused by alcohol. He will always be my friend – a good, well-meaning and caring person at heart who also happens to have an alcohol problem over which he must be constantly vigilant.

You’re Gay? No Therapy for You!

A law enacted this year by the Tennessee legislature affecting the counseling profession shows how some politicians are simply jackasses pursuing their own myopic, discriminatory agenda.

My forthcoming book, Don’t Knock, He’s Dead: A Longshot Candidate Gets Schooled in the Unseemly Underbelly of American Campaign Politics, details some of the more repulsive and corrupt aspects of politics and those who practice the art. But the Tennessee law strikes close to home, as I am in the process of completing a graduate degree and clinical internships in counseling and becoming a mental health therapist.

Tennessee politicians passed a law allowing mental health counselors to decline to treat any client if counseling that client involves “goals, outcomes or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor.”

This law’s not-so-subtle aim is to allow counselors to discriminate against clients who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), an attempt to strike back against gains won through the legal system recently for gay marriage and equal treatment. The so-called “sincerely held principles” law also would allow counselors to deny services to clients for any number of discriminatory reasons, such as if counselors disagreed with principles of Jews or Muslims, or with principles of cohabitating unmarried couples. Essentially, the law is codifying discrimination.

The law is in direct opposition to the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, which states that counselors must avoid imposing their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors on clients. In other words, the Code of Ethics forbids counselors from turning away clients who may be gay because they have certain attitudes or beliefs about gay people or the gay lifestyle.

Why Tennessee politicians felt they had to meddle in a self-regulating profession that is functioning well on its own is baffling, and demonstrates that many politicians are out-and-out jackasses using their office to impose their own narrow views on the populace. The American Counseling Association and the Tennessee Counseling Association vehemently opposed the law, yet politicians with little knowledge of the counseling profession and the profession’s ethics saw fit to ignore the experts in the field.

Could you imagine if a legislature passed the same kind of law in opposition to the medical profession’s ethics, allowing doctors to decline to treat gay people based on “sincerely held principles?” An emergency room doctor knows a patient rushed to the hospital is gay, and just passes on treatment?

Or the nurse’s code of ethics? How about police? A police officer has a belief in opposition to gay people, so decides not to protect and serve during an assault because of that principle?

It should be no different for the counseling profession. And any counselor who declines to provide services to gay people has no business being in counseling. Hold onto your beliefs, values and religion, but get out of counseling, because your attitudes and discriminatory behavior don’t belong. Counseling must be one place where people who are gay – or people from any other social or religious group — are accepted without discrimination or judgement, not another place where they will be rejected for who they are.

I am disgusted by Tennessee’s law and the complicity of a majority of the state’s lawmakers and its governor who promulgated it to promote their own brand of hate and unfounded fear of people who are “different.” Jackasses, all.

I stand firmly behind the American Counseling Association and its Tennessee affiliate in all efforts to get this law repealed and show other states, some of which are following suit, that such discriminatory legislation will not stand. The ACA already has taken one bold action to show that counselors do not accept the blind and narrow-minded stupidity of legislators by pulling its 2017 national conference out of Nashville, TN, striking a blow to the state’s economy and sending a message. More strong messages are in order.

Tennis Teaching and Counseling: Immersion in “The People Business”

This summer, I made the seemingly stark transition from working as a counseling intern in an outpatient mental health clinic serving low-income clients to teaching tennis at a large beach resort . One would think the two jobs would have nothing in common, both in clientele and job requirements, but that’s not the case. What’s the common denominator? Quickly evaluating, working with, and constantly interacting with people and all their personality types, moods, behaviors, idiosyncrasies and expectations.

In my previous job and career in public relations, I could frequently go a whole day with minimal direct interactions with people, if I wanted to. People in those jobs often interact mostly through their computer and e-mail and may even intentionally avoid personal, face-to-face conversations.

But that’s not possible as a counselor or as a tennis professional. Tennis is a form of therapy for many people, a way to escape stress, immerse in a physical activity and release tensions on the ball and endorphins in the body. The tennis pro is the counselor on the court. Part of the pro’s job is to figure out what makes people tick, what they want, how to engage, encourage and motivate them, and how to make them feel good about themselves. And that’s just referring to the paying clients. At the resort, there’s a large staff of tennis teachers and administrative workers, all with their own personality quirks, with whom I must interact personally every day.

I’ve learned there’s also some personality diagnosing taking place on the court, and learning how to interact with people differently. Some players are easy going and just happy to be playing; others are more demanding and have certain expectations – in other words, more difficult to please and more apt to complain or emphasize the negative. Many are happy; others crabby. Many are classic high-achievers; some are overly self-critical. Some players are filled with doubts while others have over-inflated egos. Some players like to talk a lot; others rarely utter a word.

Most parents are charming, but a few can be insufferable, as most tennis pros can attest. Most kids are a joy and are eager to please, while a few find pleasure in defiance and pushing limits. Some kids are more fragile than others. A few kids have emotional or behavioral challenges that present on the court.

While I doubt I will have any significant impact on anybody’s life this summer in my role as a tennis pro, like I felt I did as a counseling intern, I believe I am getting great practice at interacting with strangers and seeking to get a sense of who they are and making a quick connection, skills that translate directly to the counseling environment and relationship.

I never thought these two seemingly disparate professions would have such similarities until I became immersed in the tennis resort environment. In many ways, it has been just as challenging as counseling because of the need to develop fast interpersonal relationships, with both my fellow teaching pros and clients. For an introvert like me, that is a skill I am going to be constantly honing, on the court or in a counseling session. In each profession, I am in “the people business.”

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