Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

This is one of my very favorite days of the year because first of all it's a day I can gleefully and without guilt fill my plate with all foods beige and secondly (and not in this order, okay maybe in this order), it's a day to reflect on all that I have to be grateful for. (Included on that list is the new, relaxed rules for writing that say I can end my sentences with a proposition if I feel like it, so there Mrs. Dickerson.)

It's been a year in which I was grateful to be functional enough to travel to see beautiful places and more importantly, beautiful people who I love, who, although we are not related by blood or marriage, are a part of me; they are family.

It's been a year in which some truly amazing women came into my life and now they too are a part of me and they too are family.

It's been a year in which I am again grateful for my incredible family and as I look at the photos of my nieces and nephews and think about the kind of people they are, the kind of hearts they have and the intentions with which they live their lives, I not only feel privileged to be their Aunt, I am hopeful for our future.

It's been a year in which I've been lucky enough to continue to have some very long time friends who are so special to me. While there are times we are not present in each other's lives on a daily basis, our friendships are strong and filled with love.

It's been a year in which, because of the power of email and Facebook, I have over and over and over and especially during difficult days, been oh so grateful for my community of cyberspace friends who fill my Wall and my inbox with love, support and laughter.

It's been a year in which I am, as always, grateful to share my home with two wonderful men, one hairier and cuter than the other. Of course the less hairy one sheds less so they each have their strengths. There were times this year it was not clear Stone would be here to share another Thanksgiving with me. I am so very grateful he's here by my side eagerly awaiting our traditional Thanksgiving Day walk in the woods.

It's been a year in which a woman I knew 30 + years ago opened her life and her heart to me during the last 8 weeks of her life and gave me the incredible privilege of helping her through her last great challenge. I surely got more than I gave, as I walked with her on her journey, because I was reminded to treasure each precious moment in life and because being there for others in need, well, to me, this is the point of life, this is my religion, my church, my temple, and my fun, funny, backflipping friend Leslie gave me the great gift of helping her when she needed it most and I am and will be eternally grateful.

And, because of our shared affection and compassion for Leslie, I had the amazing privilege of having a front row seat to watch the outpouring as a group of people who went to school together nearly 35 years ago came together to not only support Leslie and her family, but to vow we would be there for the next person to face a great crisis and the next and the next. We vowed to be there with prayers, with cards and emails, with friendly visits, with food and with funds. The Class of '79 Benevolent Fund is ready and waiting for the next classmate in need. I am thankful I got to bear witness on the incredible generosity of spirit that unfolded.

Yes, this has been a year that I have so very much to be thankful for.

And so tonight as my plate is filled to the brim with beige food, my heart will be filled with gratitude.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Terminal Optimist Meets Her Match

This weekend I was reminded of the importance of grief, not just at home but at work as well. We all recognize the necessity of grief when someone we love dies, but the truth is in order to have an authentic sense of peace after any loss, you have to acknowledge it and the feelings it brings. I used to be one of those always positive all the time people. I had a friend who half jokingly said I wasn’t Eternally Optimistic; I was Terminally Optimistic. She’s right I was. Today, after nearly 16 years of living with the daily challenges of life with a brain injury and with the help of a Rehabilitation Psychologist who, in spite of my very best efforts, refuses to allow me to B.S. myself, while I am still a glass half full gal, I understand what my friend was trying to tell me when she dubbed me Terminally Optimistic. I now understand that when one door closes and another opens, while it is wonderful to be excited and hopeful about the opportunities and possibilities that await, it is equally important to acknowledge the loss of what lies behind the closed door and to deal with the stress that accompanies the transition. This weekend I was reminded of what can happen to a work place when there is too much change with too little support and no recognition of the losses the staff has endured. I was talking with a friend about a job I had, geez what feels like a million year ago. I was the Director of Mental Health Case Management at a large Community Mental Health Center. On my first day I went off to work eager and excited. I loved new challenges. I came home at the end of the first day shell shocked and told my husband, and remember this was during the Terminally Optimistic phase of my life, “My staff are HORRIBLE human beings. They hate their clients. They’re horrendous.” At the end of the first week I came home and said “My staff are all burned out. Understandably so.” In the previous 2 – 3 years, they had endured organizational restructuring, changes in management and management style, ongoing rumors of financial instability and potential layoffs and a series of changes in funding regulations each of which mandated changes in documentation, Continuing Education and most devastatingly, changes in how they were and were not able to help their clients. No one gave them support for the anxiety and stress this cascade of changes created. No one even acknowledged how hard it might be. As a result, the staff got bitchy, bitter and burned out. I had my work cut out for me. My vision – I wanted us to provide great services AND for this to be a great place to work. I knew it would be a long road ahead AND I absolutely believed we could get there. I began by acknowledging the turmoil they’d been through and by giving them permission to grieve all they had lost, when work felt simpler, less stressful and more stable. We talked about how it used to be and what they missed about it. THEN we talked about the new reality and, together, we figured out the ways we were going to adapt and adjust to live within it. I created an atmosphere in which it became more socially rewarding to be positive than be the constant critic or the perpetual Yes-But’er. (Yeah but that won’t work because…) When a staff member said something positive s/he got positive feedback from me. (I remember joking with a colleague that in my Department if you said something positive about a client, balloons and streamers fell from the ceiling.) On the wall in the staff meeting room was a sign with a big red circle with a slash through it. In the middle of the circle were the words “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Slowly, steadily and surely our services improved as did staff morale. It all started, it all needed to start, with allowing them to openly grieve the long list of losses they’d endured. What was true for this group of human service professionals is equally true for each of us as individuals. When we sweep under the rug, life’s little losses, they each take a toll. When all we allow ourselves to feel is the excitement about what lies on the other side of the open door and deny the sense of loss that comes from the door that’s closing, we pay a price. Denial is hard and exhausting work. It’s the emotions we deny that control us. Unless and until we admit we have them, they will affect us. They will affect our relationships, our happiness, our health and yes, our work.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Coming Full Circle With Circle Tail

During the last week, while my service dog, Stone, underwent lumbar spine surgery, I thought a lot about how much he means to me and how he truly transformed my life. The truth is, I thought of little else. As I let out a huge sigh of relief when the surgeon came to tell me that in spite of his heart condition, he sailed through anesthesia without a hitch and that the surgery was a success, I immediately thought about how I couldn’t wait to tell Stone’s Circle Tail family who I knew were out there rooting for him.

As I sent Marlys Staly, Circle Tail’s Executive Director, (or Aunt Marlys as Stone refers to her), and the rest of his Circle Tail family an email update, I remembered a narrative I had written for Circle Tail a couple of years ago, when Stone was first diagnosed with his heart condition. As I am sitting here with Stone, once again happily taking care of him for a change, it seemed appropriate to share that narrative on my blog.

Coming Full Circle With Circle Tail

On a June evening, as I was headed home from work , I had an auto accident that left me with a traumatic brain injury and a life forever altered. For the first seven years, I was so impaired it wasn’t truly safe for me to be anywhere by myself, not even in my own home.

Because of balance and depth perception deficits, I frequently fell and walked into things, resulting not only in an abundance of bumps and bruises, but, on three separate occasions, new, less severe brain injuries. My memory was so impaired that even when I remembered to set the timer as a cue to take my medication, I’d all too often get distracted before I made my way to my pill box.

When not at home, I was mostly in a wheelchair.

I lost a lot that day in June - skills and abilities, memories and knowledge, my paid and volunteer jobs in human services, an active and independent life and eventually, my marriage. In an instant, my world became oh so small.
And then came Stone.

Stone is a long haired Weimaraner who came to Circle Tail when he was just 8 weeks old. While his two siblings were adopted out to loving homes, Stone was a star pupil in Circle Tail’s Prison Dog Training Program. Just shy of his 3rd birthday, Stone and I were partnered.

Because of Stone, not only have I left my wheelchair behind, he and I go hiking in the mountains. His assistance with balance and depth perception have empowered me to dramatically increase my physical abilities and endurance, which has, in turn, dramatically increased my cognitive abilities and endurance. Because of Stone, I’ve been able to return to social work, as a volunteer, helping other families whose lives have been altered by brain injury. Because of Stone, I once again lead a rich and fulfilling life. Because of Stone, my world is both bigger and brighter.

A lot of life and love have passed since that first December day Marlys introduced Stone and I. We are such a well tuned team now, it’s hard to even remember that for the first month, figuring out how to put on his harness was so difficult for me it took nearly 10 minutes every time.

Happily, throughout our time as a team, Circle Tail has been there every step of the way.

After we were partnered, Marlys helped us build on the skills Stone learned in Circle Tail’s Inmate/Canine Education Program in order to ensure Stone met my specific needs. Together we taught him to bring my medication to me when the timer went off and then to bring a bottle of water from the refrigerator. Whenever we’ve run into new challenges, Circle Tail has been there with new solutions. When I have questions or concerns or want someone to join our “victory dance” when Stone and I accomplish some new feat, Circle Tail has been there.

Stone and I are now facing an often overwhelming obstacle and true to form, Circle Tail is there. In July, Stone became critically ill with a gastrointestinal illness. While his GI condition has thankfully resolved, it left him with a serious heart problem. In those first few days, when Stone was so acutely ill, Marlys was on the other end of the phone helping me sort through it all and perhaps most importantly, reminding me to breath. Circle Tail’s Advisory Board was there as well. A Vet on the Board sent me information about Stone’s condition, written in a way we “mere mortals” could understand. And now that Stone is rehabbing from his illness and adjusting to his new heart medication and cardiac testing routine, Circle Tail is once again, joining our victory dances.

As time goes by, more and more I will become Stone’s service human. That’s just fine by me as I’m more than happy to return the favor.

As you can see, I owe Circle Tail more than I can ever hope to repay, so when they asked if I would speak at their annual Dinner, Art and Wine for Canines I was thrilled at the opportunity to give something back to this amazing organization that rescued my amazing dog who in turn rescued me. The event is March 3rd and I’ll be speaking about “Building a Life You Like Even When It’s Not the One You Wanted”.

Stone has indeed helped me build a life I like.

You can find out more about the event on the Circle Tail website: The deadline to purchase tickets is Feb 22nd.

Stone and I would love to see you there.