Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Tale of Two Teams

Two teams met on a basketball court on Saturday.  They converged to play at a suburban private school which looked more like a convention centre with an upscale coffee shop.

One team had moms and dads and little brothers or sisters lining the court in soft cushy chairs.    Their entourage fueled them up with good food, handed them their freshly washed uniforms, and drove them to the game on time.  They cheered wildly for them when their team scored, and shouted out, "good try" when the other team did.  One team was comprised of mostly blond ponytails, and wearing brand-name basketball shoes.  Their coaches cheer them on.  One even sits with them during breaks in the tournament and chats about all of the things that matter.  When they're hungry, they grab the ziplock bags stuffed with cash that their moms gave them at the start, and wander over to the canteen to go and pick whatever they want.  They are kind, polite, and respectful.  They play hard, and want to win.

The other team walks in alone.  There are no parents cheering from the sidelines for them.  Many of their parents don't even know where they are.  They piled into a few vans to make the trek to the part of the city most of them have never been to before.  There is so much empty space here, so unlike their neighborhood.   No one has blond hair on their team.  Some of them wear tight braids, one of them, a hijab.  They've got one coach who threw their team together.  When they walk through the school that the tournament is in they shake their heads.   "This is a school?", they wonder.   Their tummies grumble in between but they just keep playing.  They're used to fending for themselves.  No one is gushing over their play or making sure they are ready for the next game.  They are tough, independent, jaded, and have seen it all.  More than kids should.  They play hard and want to win.

Both teams arrive at the game ready to play.  It starts well with basketball as the focus.  Soon things unravel.  The other team starts scratching and pushing.  There are gasps from the one team's parents and looks to the refs.  Not much is done.  Then it escalates.  There is shoving, arms around necks, and tugs to the ground.  It's disconcerting to the one team.  They aren't used to this.  They fight for the ball the way they were taught because it's the way they were taught.  That's how you do it - the way you were taught, or so it seems.  The one team beats the other team, and the lines are made to file by and shake hands.  Some on the other team refuse.  One of them punches a member of one team in the stomach as she walks by.  There is anger from losing, and maybe anger for more.

At lunch, I talk to the girls from the one team as they stop to try to make sense of the aggressive and vicious play they experienced.  I try to put things into context.  "These girls are from a different world.  They live in the inner-city.  They are from worn-torn countries and have seen more than you can imagine.  They are used to fighting and battling, and clawing away to get everything they have.  It's what they have to do.  It's the way they were taught.  It's their survival instinct."

I wonder, later, how the other team felt walking through the wide spacious hallways and lobby of the big suburban private school.  How they makes sense of the blond pony-tails and the sidelines full of parents cheering and supporting while they play for no one but themselves.  How much of that makes them want to push and shove and hit and scratch the ones around them who appear to have everything?

Sometimes basketball is more than just playing a game.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It's Off to Work I Go

Today was my first day of work at my new job.

It was a strange feeling getting up this morning to get ready for work (and make lunches and pack bags, and drive kids to school... cause that's what us momma's do!).  I didn't feel nervous, I felt excited.  I felt like I was about to walk in to what I'd been waiting for.  I packed my own lunch, grabbed my things and drove off to an actual workplace to which I was expected.  It felt good.  It felt like it was my time.

Let me tell you about my job.  My official title is Child and Youth Counsellor.  I get to have this awesome role to play at Alpha House, which is an amazing project that provides transitional second-stage housing for women and their kids who have left abusive situations.  This means I get to spend twenty hours a week counselling kids and teenagers who are in the midst of transition and are recovering from the trauma of leaving an abuser and are learning skills and new ways of being and relating in healthy relationships.  Not only that, I get to meet with each of their moms one on one every week to talk about parenting, being a positive force in their kid's lives, and all of the other things that come along with the experience of leaving an abusive partner and starting again.

I am so grateful for this chance to practice the therapeutic skill set I've been developing.  I am so thankful to get to do it in a place that allows me the freedom and space to try new things and do it "my way".  I am in awe of the fact that I get to work with some of the strongest and bravest women who want to do better for their kids.  I am overwhelmed with the amazing reality that I get to help let some light in to the dark places in kid's hearts and minds every single day that I go to work.

Mike asked me at the end of the day how it all went.  I said, "it was good".  But if he asked me now I'd say it was "good and exciting, and scary, and overwhelming and hard, and inspiring and interesting, and challenging, and captivating".  (Plus a lot more things that I can't put into words tonight.)

In the midst of all the excitement of a first day, there was a wrench in the plan, as there so often is.  Ellie had to be taken to see a pediatric orthopedic specialist today to cast her broken wrist.  Usually that's my job to do.  I take the girls to every appointment and every check-up and make sure it all gets done.  But today was Mike's day.  He took Ellie to work with him, then to her appointment and off to school.  I was the one getting the texts from the Dr's office and he was the one holding her hand.  It felt so different to be the one who wasn't there.  Part of me felt that it wasn't right.  But the other part knew that today was a great gift.  I had to be at work, but Mike got to be the one right by Ellie's side.  They have their own chapter of the story from today, and it's just theirs.   They got to tell me all about it when I got home, and it was good.

Tomorrow I get to do it all over again.  I get to run a parenting support group right off the hop, first thing in the morning.  I am looking forward to walking through the doors and knowing the women's stories, feeling connected with their kids, and comfortable in my space.  That will take awhile, but I'm looking forward to getting there.  And that feels pretty great.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Ten minutes and fourteen years ago, Hannah Elizabeth came into the world and made me a mom for the first time.     Way back then, fourteen years seemed like a lifetime away, and now it's today.  

Hannah is the guinea-pig.  We practice and hone all of our parenting skills on her first before we get to try them out on her younger sisters.  She's had to endure a lot on our journey around the learning-curve, and most times it feels as though we're in this together, figuring it all out as we go.

The greatest reward of parenting is seeing your child from afar and genuinely liking who they are.  It's watching from a distance and thinking that you'd gravitate to them if you were a stranger.  It's wondering what's in their head and how much you'd like to know more.  It's the wonder and the mystery of anticipating who they'll become, but savouring the little glimpses you get to unfold as they grow.

That's not to say that we don't have our share of slamming doors or moments of impasse with a healthy dose of exasperation.   We do.  We have lots.  But I still really like her and I'm pretty sure that most of the time she likes me.   

Her feet are bigger than mine now, and she's officially taller.  

I catch myself, increasingly more frequently, aware that there are many areas in life in which she is smarter and more aware than I am.  She laps up knowledge and stores it away in her encyclopedia-like brain ready to pull out at a moment's notice.  Just this morning as I was making her crepes for her birthday brunch, she remarked on the number of countries that England hasn't invaded.   She doesn't just know the fact, she knows the context, and why it's important.  I can't believe I scored a kid who wants to know the big picture of this crazy world, and approaches it all with curiosity and openness.

She likes Sharpies and sketch books and is often on her tummy on her bed making magic on blank white pages that point to who she is.

She has surrounded herself with good people.  Friends who make her believe she is good and valuable, and I can see that she does the same.  Friends who make me laugh out loud, and stop to think as they tell me some of their secrets and I get a glimpse into the fourteen year old heart and mind.

She still reads as though her life depends on it, and nothing makes me more full than having her bound towards me and shove a book into my hands and insist that I read it.  Those words are game-changers for her, and she wants me to know why and experience for myself.  She may not tell me everything that goes on in her heart and her head, but she sets her book in my hands and opens the pages for me so I can uncover some of the mystery for myself.

She listens to good music, scrawling out the words to the lyrics of Canadian Indie bands, and acquiring a collection of thoughtful and dense music.  She doesn't care what everyone else is listening to, she knows what she likes, and she makes it her own.

She may be quiet, but she is loved by kids and when their parents leave the house she comes alive with their little ones.  They want her to come back because she is kind and knows how to play.  Two of the most important skills in this life.

And so, you see that I like her.  There is lots to like.
And more to discover, all of which I am looking forward to.

These are the days of head shaking and eye-rolling, stomping away, short fuses, and academy-award caliber dramatic responses.  But within and around are these amazing moments of knowing.... and liking.

Fourteen years has come and gone in the blink of an eye.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Well Worn Path

I learned this week that it's truly possible to feel two intense emotions at the very same time about the exact same situation.  All week I had a lingering sense of sadness, which grew each day closer to today.    Peppering the sadness were feelings of gratitude and joy which made it all more bearable.  It was a week of change and transition, and a week to savour relationship.

This morning a big moving truck pulled onto our crescent onto our neighbor's driveway, and began to be filled.  After it was full, it was driven only a few minutes away to be emptied out, all into a beautiful house full of possibility.   I couldn't bear to see the truck get filled up this morning.  I stayed inside.  It was too much for me, so I sent Mike to capture the moment in time, because it tells a story.

The story goes back to early summer of 2001.  That summer our family moved on to Robertson Crescent.  We had an eighteen month old toddler and were excited about the space and the change we had found.  Just around the corner from our house, with one in between, another family moved in the same summer.  They had not one, but two daughters just a few months younger than Hannah!  We couldn't believe our fortune!

In the years that have past, there is a well-worn path that passes from the front of our house to the front door of theirs.   There have been countless trips, back and forth.  Trips for eggs, oil, yeast, ketchup, chickpeas, Parmesan cheese, sour cream, and brown sugar.    Other trips haven't collected things of the edible variety.  We've also taken propane tanks, had pictures and homework printed and collected, and picked up emergency clothing items.  There was the time I frantically delivered Hannah and Ellie in a wagon on a Saturday afternoon while I blubbered something about Mike nearly cutting off his finger with the hedge trimmer and needing to take him to the ER.  We have walked over to meet a new puppy, and they have walked here to meet a new baby or two.  We have sent girls over just to "see what Kiera and Thea are doing" when our house seemed small and moments seemed long.   There have been countless hours of playing outside, swinging on swings, celebrating first rides on two wheelers on the street, pushing babies in strollers, allowing independence in allowing the girls to venture out to the school ground alone, walks and runs, sharing beers and BBQ'd feasts,  calling over the fence, watching feet and bodies grow, telling stories and making memories.

I don't like change.  If my world were perfect, things would stay the same.  People in houses right where you want them, just as they've always been.  But change comes and people grow and families move.  

The family at the other end of the well-worn path moved today and things won't be the same.

Adrian likes to tell us that "if you walk it, we're only one kilometer away".  And he's right, that's true.  One kilometer isn't far, and my guess is that a new path will be worn in and we will find ourselves on the other end, long and often.  But one kilometer is further than 100 steps.  (And that will take some getting used to when I just need to borrow an egg.)

There is joy today too.  Expectation for beginnings for old friends who get to create something new in a beautiful space.  New space is full of possibility and room for new memories.  This is the good stuff I am thinking about - the stuff that allows the sadness to not sit as heavy or as hard.  

I wonder how long it will take for the grass on that path to grow in as full and as thick as the area around it?  How long until I remember that I can't just get what I need with one phone call and a pint-sized courier?  How long until that house is no longer "theirs" and again becomes just another house once again?

I'm glad the snow is covering up the path and hiding it.  By the time spring comes, maybe that one kilometer path will have begun to look used, and not seem so far away.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

You Only Fear What You Don't Know

I presented a paper this week on research that was done in a region in South Africa and the way care-givers have managed to cope after community members with chronic mental illness were deinstitutionalized after apartheid ended in 1996.  The paper focused a lot on the stigma that exists in South Africa surrounding mental illness.  As I read the data and the research in preparation for my presentation, I was struck by the prevalence of stigma there, but even more so, how many similarities there are right here in Canada in 2014.  Stigma doesn't only align itself with mental illness in the developing world.  It makes its home right here.

As our class was discussing the work and the research, one of my classmates honestly shared about how ill-prepared she felt in working with those with serious mental illness.   She wasn't alone.  So many people have never interacted with someone with a serious mental illness.  Or maybe they just don't know that they have.

I don't feel like that.

For most of my childhood, my mom worked as a nurses aid at the mental health centre in the small town I grew up in.  She worked a variety of shifts, which meant that sometimes I was home in the evening or on weekends without her and didn't have a whole lot to do.  Sometimes I'd ride my bike over to the Centre (aren't small towns beautiful?), hop off, and ring the big door bell at the front of the building.  The security was tight.  There were several doors to get through in the locked facility and getting in or out didn't come easily.  After a few minutes my mom or another staff member would come to the front door to see who had arrived, and I would enter through the big glass doors.

I don't ever remember being afraid.

I was little,   maybe six or seven, when I'd start coming over on my own.  The centre was an inpatient facility which provided care and community for the most chronic and severe mentally ill in the region.  I would walk down the big hallways, stopping occasionally to be introduced and stop to talk to some of the patients.    Some patients were on significant amounts of medication and were slumped in chairs and drooling.  I wasn't afraid.  Some were talking to themselves, engaged in delusions and their own reality.  I didn't feel threatened.  Others sat and cried when I'd come around.  I remember taking their hands sometimes - especially the older patients who looked so weary, so small, and so defeated.  These were women and men from all walks of life; all ages, all socio-economic levels, all levels of education, and all with their own hopes and dreams... none of which included sitting in vinyl chair in a mental hospital.

I made friends there, because my mom had.  She loved that job, and she was good at it.  She saw the value in all of them and cared enough to learn their stories.  I learned to do the same.  Over the years, some of the patients never left.  Sometimes I didn't see them when I came for a walk and a visit because they were locked up in  the secure wing because it wasn't safe for them or anyone else not to be.  I heard those stories, and I connected them with the people I knew.

And I wasn't afraid.

Quite a few years later I was a young University student living in Winnipeg for the first time.  I was invited over to share supper at my friend Jackie's apartment that she shared with her friend.  I first met Jackie when she was an inpatient at the mental health centre.  She was one who was heavily medicated, sedated, and unable to find her way out.  But now she had, and she was living on her own for the first time, making a life for herself.  She told me some of her story of what being a mental health consumer was like.  How hard she had to advocate for herself and fight for support, understanding, and adequate care.  I told her about being in school for the first time; boys I liked, friends I'd made, and courses I was taking.  Sometimes she heard voices.  Sometimes they got too loud.

But I was never afraid.

I was sitting with the girls at a restaurant last Sunday afternoon for a quick lunch.  In walked a couple who were obviously struggling with mental health issues.  I couldn't take my eyes off of them.    I got that same familiar feeling I've had all my life - this overwhelmed sense of the pain that they carried.  I kept looking at them - not because I was afraid or uncomfortable, but because I couldn't stop wondering what their story was, what their diagnosis had been, which meds they were on, how they were coping...

Stigma exists and then grows where there are assumptions, misunderstanding and fear.  I wish we could all walk into a building full of people with mental illness as six-year-olds and learn to navigate it all over again.

Then we wouldn't be afraid.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shop Talk

I returned to school with an abrupt beginning last week Thursday.  Abrupt because I didn't realize until a few days before class, that classes began a full week earlier than I thought they did.  Heading back to school before my kids returned to school?  It just didn't seem right.  And it didn't seem right last Thursday night.  Our program was the only one at the U of W to begin a full week earlier than the rest of the University.  It was minus one hundred, dark and blustery last Thursday night as I parked and trudged across campus.  It was like a deserted ghost town.  Part of my reason for trudging rather than skipping was the class I was taking.  It's a required course called "Research Methods in Family Therapy" and it illicits fear and trembling from all non-Math type people like myself.  Visions of math and statistics and equations danced in my head as I prepared to enter the classroom.  This was the one course in the entire program that I was not excited to take.

Thankfully, my fears were put to rest quickly.  Math will not be a focus, I heard, and most students in the program find it quite painless... The focus of the course is making us critical consumers of Family Therapy research, and that I can handle.  The big project is writing and submitting a research proposal at the end of the term.   I already have an idea.  It's one that I've actually considered pursuing in the past, so purpose and passion already exist which for me, is half the battle.

Monday night I began my second class this term, and it was one I was greatly looking forward to.  I guess you'd have to be a little quirky to think a class called "Working with Families with Serious Mental Illness" sounds like a good time.  The instructor,  Psychiatrist Dr. Stewart Wakeman, is a gifted lecturer and turns all stereotypes for psychiatrists on their heads.  He's warm, engaging, personable, funny, and damn smart.  Well, I guess you'd expect a Psychiatrist to be smart.  But not necessarily all of the other things.

One of the things Dr. Wakeman spent some time talking about at length is the trend towards collaborative health care that we seem to be on the cusp of here in Winnipeg.  Many health authorities are moving away from "fee for service" models of reimbursement for their physicians and are moving towards salaried positions.  This enables health authorities to establish and set-up collaborative care clinics and centres which provide consumers with a more well-rounded approach to health care.  There are a few of these in existence in Winnipeg already, with more on the horizon.

What would this look like and how would it change things?  Imagine you are heading in to see your family physician and you're feeling like you can't cope with the depression and anxiety you've been experiencing.  You're not even sure that's what it is.  You just know you don't feel right.  After chatting with your physician and determining that you do, indeed, have clinical depression, you are offered a prescription for an anti-depressant/anti-anxiety drug to curb the feelings.  Now imagine that there is a Marriage and Family Therapist's office just down the hallway who is on-call.  Your doctor sends you to chat with the therapist immediately, as they are only a few steps away.  You can sit down and have a short conversation about your mental health and receive some preliminary psychotherapy without having to make another appointment, drive across the city, or researching who is covered by your private insurance.  A follow-up appointment is made and to see the therapist again, and care is handled jointly by your family doctor and the therapist.  If the need arises, there is a Psychiatrist on staff who consults with your team to ensure that you are getting the best care possible.  This is what collaborative health care could look like.

This model makes me deliriously excited for many reasons.  First, if I had been offered this kind of care at different stages in my journey with mental illness, it would have made a significant difference for me.  Five minute conversations with a general practitioner are not enough to determine a diagnosis, treatment, or what supports could be of help.    Eliminating the need for the consumer to do the work to look around, call around, and drive around reduces stress significantly and makes it easier access help.  Having someone provide psychotherapy in a medical clinic reduces stigma and normalizes mental health issues as something that shouldn't be hidden or ashamed of.

I'm also happy because this trend means that there will be lots of jobs for people in my field in the coming years.  Dr. Wakeman was confident that there will be therapists recognized and sought after for these types of models of care.   I like the sound of this.   I also like thinking that some of the amazing men and women I'm fortunate to study and learn with are the ones who will be filling the offices and providing care to people seeking help in a few years.  My friends are going to make amazing therapists.

The third class I'm taking this term is full days over three weekends.  It's called "Family Reconstruction" and it's a component of renown therapist Virginia Satir's model of therapy.  It just so happens that Virginia Satir's protege, Maria Gomori, lives and works in Winnipeg, and she teaches the course.  Now the amazing thing is that Maria Gomori is known to be one of the best teachers and lecturers in the program, and guess how old she is.  She's in her 90's!  I am really looking forward to an intensive opportunity to learn from someone with that much wealth and wisdom.

I was struck on Monday night how interesting the Marriage and Family Therapy program is.  When new classes assemble, it's like a mini-reunion of old friends and colleagues from different courses and practicums.  There are hugs and laughter and a buzz of conversation before the class even begins.  There is warmth and openness and room for expression.  I love being in a room with people who think that talking about families and serious mental illness is interesting, captivating, and motivating.  I'm in the right place with the right people.  That feels good.