My school experience was challenging to say the least. If you look at my resume there is nothing funny, eye catching or even awe aspiring, but getting to where I am today has been an interesting journey. Because I am dyslexic, I had always seen the world from a unique perspective, a perspective that was not shared by many people. Not only do I scramble words and letters but I tend to see the world almost upside down, or even backwards. Hard to explain, but true! Getting through Graduate School was a huge challenge. In fact after the first year, I was sure I wouldn’t make it. I think the challenge taught me empathy, humility and a heck of a lot of patience. I also learned not to listen to people who advised me to quit, who didn’t believe I could do it, or who thought I’d never make it. And I learned to use humor. When you sit in a statistic classes for hours and walk out understanding nothing, you either give-up, begin to cry, or find humor. I chose humor and, in fact, I think the struggle for comprehension led me to be comfortable with true ambiguity. Statistics, like human behavior, is predictable but often unclear until you tease it out and complete the picture. Wise I guess, but also a survival technique. Needless to say, the final completion of my Ph.D. ended a rocky relationship with school.
I coped with the frustration and challenges of school by riding horses. I was lucky enough to land a job with a horse trainer who marveled at my lack of dexterity and my lack of ability to set up the easiest of ring preparations. She once watched me take 10 minutes to set up a fence for a horse to jump. Apparently, I did it all backwards. Good thing I was a better rider than a jump crew. She is now the horse professional on my clinical team!
Building a private practice in my field of psychology was much easier than getting through school. However, I did spend my second week as a private therapist believing I had failed miserably. The 6 clients I had scheduled and seen the week before didn’t show-up again. It was only later (when I left the office) that I found out I had given them the wrong gate code as I had reversed the numbers in my usual dyslexic way. They had all shown up but had left thinking it was their fault. It was then that I discovered that being the imperfect therapist has its charm and can even fill the seats. In fact humor and taking responsibility for mistakes can shock and surprise, even help people feel better, and mistakes are something I learned to do well... I found that irreverence can be an effective tool for working with people. Once I scheduled three families all at once creating a logjam in the waiting room. But I owned up to the scheduling error and it turned out to be a useful discussion with each family.
Within a few years I had a thriving private practice but had never really accepted or learned how to be a blank screen and stay silent. This is not to say I was not empathic, reflective, supportive or encouraging - I was, and knew it by the responses of the numerous clients who came to see me. However, I did insert humor when appropriate often taking great risks with the timing. Somehow I got away with it and still do. I learned to use my life experiences judiciously, not to mirror other people’s - but to share lessons I had learned. My life had its own turmoil and I found people often responded well, learning how to make sense out of the things that happened to them.
My work eventually led me to working with law enforcement, initially with a drunk drivers program. Nothing funny about drunk drivers, but my assertive personality was a good match for a challenging population. Periodically law enforcement would contact me regarding a particularly difficult situation. Most of the calls were about out of control teenagers. Occasionally a call would come in from a sheriff friend who needed help with a case. I remember one case in which a runaway child had been recovered after some painstaking work by the sheriffs department. I was called to help reunify the child with her parents. The meeting was set to take place in the sheriff’s office. The child warned us to not be to excited. Her warning proved to be correct when the mother walked in, took one look at the daughter and said “Why the heck did you bring that one back? I thought you were bringing back her sister?” The young lady shrugged and responded with“ I told you so.”
I began to work more regularly with various law enforcement agencies including my own small town police department. I mostly worked on low level drug and alcohol infractions but occasionally I would get called in to assess a problem or solve a difficult situation for a family. That is where I hatched my plan for a comprehensive program to help families reconnect. It became clear that connection was a big part of stabilizing a family. Humor helped with connection. Families need to learn ways to connect and need the tools to do it. Laughter and activities together help too.
I gained a reputation for working with impossible situations and difficult people. One particular judge used to refer cases to me - these were the cases that had already been through many therapists within 100 miles of my office. I was originally flattered and then wondered why I was the last resort and not one of the first. The judge never answered that question, but I made it work and expanded my reputation to include international and national work. My bread and butter is the really awful, gut wrenching divorces. The kind where a judge is at a loss as to what to do, the kind where it is almost impossible to believe parents can act the way they do, the kind that break your heart. These cases provide excitement, irony, sadness and ultimately - hope. They pushed me to think outside the box and utilize a range of theories and therapies to bring families together. Courage, compassion, and creativity became my three C's. I also realized that these complex cases could be better helped by a team of like-minded clinicians. I put together a team of seasoned therapists and auxiliary staff with varying personalities and skill sets. We work together with mindfulness, authenticity, and purpose. Together we are a balanced and smooth running group that is literally able "to change horses midstream".
Taking on Jaycee Dugard as a client was something of a respite from the really hard cases - because of the person Jaycee is. So how did her case get to me? Not unlike every other case that comes to me. No one knew what to do with her or with her family. How do you rehabilitate someone who has been held in a backyard and abused for 18 years? How can you help her family whose entire world has been turned upside down not once, but twice? How can you possibly help someone who has been in that situation? It took horses, dogs, a talented team including two vibrant, irreverent therapists, an amazing and gifted chef, and a wise and talented horse professional. We used humor, joy, and many activities such as cooking, hiking, hanging out, exercising and lots of talk to get the pieces back together again .
I am now connected to the advisory board for the JAYC foundation which periodically brings us fascinating but unbelievable cases. The law enforcement referrals are often familial abductions and the self referred span the gamut from murder cases to international abduction and parental alienation. Together with a long time Clinical Social Worker (I call her my Betty White look alike) we review the cases and decide who is appropriate, and who we think we can help. These cases are heartbreaking but heart-warming, and usually ridiculous and extreme. One family came to us believing they were coming to meet Gerry Springer… yes, Gerry Springer.
In my experience with this work, I have learned to roll with the punches, to think way outside the box and especially to continue with irreverence, humor, and authenticity. I have a great team, the work is very hard, but together we continue to create new ways to help people connect and often find that we are able to help with some very difficult cases….