Last I checked we are all humans, sure we are highly trained and highly skilled humans but no amount of formal education, certifications and licensure can take the human out of human service providers. Though we know how to work through our issues and seek the assistance of other clinical professionals as needed, there are times when well buried or long forgotten issues can be triggered by a client, situation or event. How we deal with those issues can make or break us as clinical professionals. It can also help us better understand our client’s reactions to things as well, should we look at and understand our own reactions.
I am a simple man, give me a good book and ok, maybe a bubble bath in which to read it (preferably pre 1900 Masonic and hardcover, if it is not psychology related), give me work to do on the farm when I am not in session and I will be enjoying life. I watch TV but mostly of the history and discovery variety which necessitate extended cable but no movie channels or anything fancy. That was of course until I got a laptop (gasp excitedly) for Christmas; it helps me work on things remotely so I am chained to my office a bit less. I also learned that it gave me access to streaming movies and certain channels. Gifted a sign in for HBO for my birthday last year, I now can watch HBO when I get a rare moment of rest; my how things differ from basic cable to pay channels. I have watched some great tv since Christmas, most just basic entertainment but recently I had a moment that saw my mind drifting slightly towards the past. Boardwalk Empire has become a distraction of mine, both from work but also to a time when I wore a much younger man’s clothes. A character on the show named Richard Harris (played by Jack Huston) is a military veteran who lost much of the left side of his face in the war. He wears a tin mask (historically accurate as it is set in the 1920’s) that covers the bulk of his missing face. Some treat him as a “normal” person while many treat him as a sort of freak at first. Some get to know him while others choose not to and instead avoid him whenever possible. He is marginalized, stigmatized and he has a real issue with self esteem. He does not even attempt to find love as he appears to feel that he can no longer acquire the love of another (at least up to season three where I am now).
There are subtle clues as to how he feels. The lack of eye contact for the most part, sitting off quietly as the world goes on around him, responding only when called upon but then going back into solitude tell us so very much about him and about ourselves. While those his age are finding the loves of their lives or at least the loves of that night, he typically remains alone. My hat goes off to the writer, director and talented actor for capturing the subtle and not so subtle sting of stigma and torment.
I found myself remembering the day when I was 19 and discovered the lump on the side of my neck, two weeks after losing my job and health insurance. At first I thought I may have been stung by a bee when on a motorcycle but then the lump started to grow rapidly and painfully. The pain was unbearable at times but I had no recourse other than home remedies. In time my once super active body was bedridden. I hastily got out of bed to pose for a picture and be interviewed by the local press for a special they were doing for father’s day. The press acted like everything was normal, I smiled as best I could for the picture; I was on the front page of the paper pushing my son on the swing set, the left side of my neck and lower face swollen much like a football was attached vertically. I was so sick that I never noticed that my bodybuilding sweatshirt was on backwards in that picture.
I remember the looks I got when I went out. The looks of varying degrees of shock and horror on the faces of little children as they saw me, the way the parents would scold their children and hurriedly get them away from me either in an attempt to spare their children or to make my discomfort caused by the child’s reaction less, only made it more traumatic to me. Only months before I had played with children; I made them laugh and they enjoyed my company. Now they looked at me like I was some kind of monster. I scared them. Girls that once looked at me with an interest now either avoided eye contact or showed no interest or at times mild disgust. How could this not affect one’s self esteem?
Eventually I got sick enough that the medical community “had” to do something to help me. Through the clinic I found a surgeon who would do a combination of pro bono services and greatly reduced fees. The hospital too reduced some of their fees while the gas passer advised that he was not a charity and would collect the full fee (it took me about ten years to own my scar). There was the possibility that my tumors and cysts were malignant and I was told to prepare for the probably diagnosis of non Hodgkin’s lymphoma or permanent paralysis of the left side as a result of the tumor removal process. I remember saying “bummer” to my surgeon when he told me the prognosis. He seemed a bit taken aback and said something like “well I am sure it is.” Before I told him “you don’t understand, I just bought a used motorcycle and it looks like I may never get to ride it. I wish I could have gotten some use out of it before I die.” Yes, I always had a peculiar way of looking at things when I came to my mortality.
After surgery I had a true gift from God; the test showed no cancer and though I noticed weakening on my left side that ended my bodybuilding (the left and right side would no longer grow the same due to the damage), I could move my left side and even grasp things. I could deal with a scar that was ¾ of an inch wide and from my ear to the middle of my collar bone. I had life!
My head seemed heavy that first week, likely from the strain of surgery which resulted in my head kind of lying on the side of my left shoulder. I left the hospital the morning after surgery, against my doctor’s advice but I had to do everything to keep my bill as low as possible. In a few days I started rehab at home, the girl that I was dating at the time had stayed with me throughout the ordeal and remained at my side as I set walking goals. At first it was to the mailbox and back, then the neighbor’s and back and finally I just kept walking, she was almost in a panic at times as I refused to listen or to stop. A cane in one hand, hospital scrubs and slippers on, walking on poorly lit streets at night I kept moving my goal until finally I had gone up the side of the mountain back down and up to where my house was. All told it was 5-6 miles. I never have looked back. A week or so later I did a follow up with my surgeon, he looked angry when he saw my “donor cycle” helmet and asked how I got there. I informed him that I drove my motorcycle and in a raised voice informed me that I had not even been cleared to walk on my own yet…
How a client views their misfortune can make such a difference in the outcome of the situation. It can be viewed as insurmountable or as a temporary setback. It can come to define their lives or become a footnote. How we intervene as professionals should be based on where they are; it can also help define or guide them on where they are going to be; positively if we are effective or negatively should we err. Empathy cannot replace knowledge and vice versa. It is imperative that we do our best to stay on the top of our games as our clients are depending on us.
Some would do everything they could to have their scars hidden or removed. Others like me do nothing to hide them and view them either as neutral or as a badge that says “I survived.” This holds true for physical and emotional scars.
While I would never recommend it, my year without a face taught me so much about human interactions, vanity and the stigma that can be worse than any scar. To all the Richard Harris’ out there I offer you no sympathy, a fair share of empathy but mostly I offer you two simple words: “you survived.”
See you at the farm.
Warren Corson III (Doc Warren) is a counselor, writer and the clinical & executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.docwarren.org).