What Counts is Being Here Together

Tired, pensive and grateful: these come close to describing my feelings as I write tonight. Frankly, I had thought of skipping this post or maybe copying and pasting an already-published excerpt of my novel and leaving it at that. I am not deluded about the importance of these posts to others.

However, I love to write. I actually need to write, especially since life has so much to tell me.

And the last couple of days have been filled to overflowing. I just returned from two days attendance at the Northwest Institute of Addictions Studies conference. Each summer, it is given in partnership with the Addictions Studies Program at Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Counseling. There were various sessions offered, as usual, presented by local, state and national experts. The topics ranged from adolescent opiate abuse, mindfulness-based relapse prevention, health care and the need for integrating addictions services, and the complicated challenges of treating gamblers. I chose my sessions and gained some good information despite too-cool or too-stuffy rooms and long hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs. I have been to a lot of conferences over the span of twenty-five years. I even gave my own trainings in the distant past. And it’s seldom the information that interests me so much as the people, familiar or not.

As I settled in the first day, someone said my name. Sitting down beside me was a fine-featured woman. We had worked together thirteen years earlier with adolescents at a large outpatient mental health program. I had been at an outlying satellite office but still recalled her as being efficient, smart and a lot younger and more educated than I was. She told me she had burned out quickly so left the organization to raise a family and re-think things.

“But all those kids–I want to work with them again. So much is at stake for them. I think I can still help.” 

She was earnest and amazed by the new research about teens and addictions. I wished her well and ran into her later when she was deep in conversation with a presenter. Her enthusiasm was infectious. 

I saw another past co-worker in the hallways not once but three  times. We had worked with indigent, often homeless adults in city center but E. had left to work at the state level, doing more research-driven work that impacted policymaking. I had just read something she had written. We chatted easily although it had been seven years. She had recently retired.

“I think about it,” I admitted. “But I’m not sure I’m done with this work.”

“Oh, I’m starting a private practice,” she assured me and we laughed.

At one session I struck up a dialogue with a fiftyish, burgundy-haired woman who had driven six hours from a more rural area to Portland. She had worked with teens exclusively and was looking for more effective tools with which to treat them.

“They might be some tougher than when I started out twenty-five years ago but I’m tougher, too.”

I nodded; I understood what she meant. And the way she held herself and spoke convinced me. But as she spoke of her clients, her face softened with compassion and her eyes brightened.

Across a large room I spotted a man with whom I’d worked at a Native American treatment facility. I couldn’t catch his eye so I started to turn–then he waved and smiled.  I thought about the couple of years I spent with tribal members from all over the western states. They brought with them devastated lives and longing for their traditions. I have kept the beaded necklaces and bracelets some gifted me in a special box.

During lunch today I took a break from the throngs and sat by the hotel pool, eating my almond butter sandwich and soaking up the sunshine. A man sat down with his salad and quietly ate. I closed my eyes and was about to doze off when I glanced at him. His name tag informed me he was K. and worked at an agency near my place of employment. He was a mental health clinician so I closed my eyes again. I primarily address substance disorders and related issues. My impulse was to avoid a heavy conversation about mental health versus addictions treatment. But it is unlike me to not talk to someone who is sitting beside me, especially at a conference or other sociable gathering.

“How are you enjoying the sessions?” I asked.

We were off and running. He shared with me how he had only gotten into the field about eight years ago after a successful business career. He’d  thought he’d found something he loved and it turned out he was right. We covered the gamut from the problems inherent in diagnosis and the skills we try to bring to treating our clients, what works better and what seems to fail, and what surprises we have had. A couple of laughs were shared. We’ve had separate yet common experiences helping people to help themselves. I have outlasted him only because I have been at it longer. I recognized in his crinkly eyes a familiar gleam of passion for the work and we concluded we both will keep at this as long as we are able.

“Do you think you’ll find a way to do this even when you retire one day?” he asked as we wrapped it up.

“I can’t imagine not getting out there and being of some service,” I admitted. “Youth at risk, those waylaid or homebound by illness, people with hard luck and living in shelters, and, of course, alcoholics and addicts–there is so much going on that could use more helping hands.” I paused. “Or maybe I’ll write about it all. Probably both.”

“Yes, one way or  another, there’s work to do,” he agreed and warmly shook my hand. “I’ll keep you in mind when my clients need addictions treatment.” 

It was near the end of the day and I had one last session to attend on gambling. I looked forward to it but I was winding down.

“Hey Cynthia!”

I turned around and there was D. striding toward me. Over six feet tall, a bit heavier than the last time I had seen him, he exuded confidence and well-being. I grabbed his hand but he pulled me into a hug. We caught up briefly before the presenters began. He now sat on the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, still advocating for addicted persons albeit in another manner. I wondered what that was like for him; he said he enjoyed it. I asked him about his two children, how he was doing. It was a too-brief chat, as had been the case all day. But we’ve had many such exchanges over the years; I will run into him again.

 Truthfully,we don’t have to say much. He was barely twenty when he came to the field as a wide-eyed, fledgling counselor at the locked residential facility where I worked. Our clients were gang-affected or affiliated youth; kids who lived on the streets; kids carrying anger and trauma with them from morning til night, addictions their only escape. Yet those addictions  brought them to us, and DB and I sat with them, sorrowed with them, tried to protect them and each other awhile as their pain escaped like boiling water. D and I and the other counselors encouraged each other. It was not a very safe place but it was a place we chose to be.

We kept watch. We bore witness. If needed, we gave permission for them to tell their own truths. And we asked them to hold on while we cared so that they could discover and practice a better way.

Sometimes it all worked. And many times it did not. But D and I and the others kept at it because it was what we wanted to do. Or perhaps it chose us,  in the end.

As I leave the conference I recall K. asking me an odd question.

“Do you still remember them years later? I mean, do you think about your old clients and wonder if they are okay, if they got better, how their lives turned out?”

Yes, I told him. I remember their eyes, their dreams, their stories, the way they struggled to become whole and free. I remember their losses and triumphs.  They have left with me something of who they are, some more than others. Their lives never stop moving me.

And, too, I remember the dozens of counselors I have worked with and the conversations, large and small, that have made a difference to me. And the dignity of silent understanding when needed. Seeing them once more is a comfort: we just keep getting on with it.

What matters most is that we really are in this together–all just people in the end, lost or found or somewhere in between. 

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