While I was walking out the door of 2017, I ran into Hope. I bumped into Hope at the Walgreens in Bakersfield. It wasn’t the place that one usually expects to find Hope. Yet there he was, in the battery aisle, walking over to greet me with a big smile and warm embrace.
I met “Hope” while serving as a therapist at a juvenile correctional facility in Kern County. Hope was then a teenage, minority boy found guilty by a judge of several felonies and sentenced to the center. Hope was like many of the other boys at the center — old souls born into a culture of broken homes, poverty, domestic/gang violence and drug or alcohol addiction that spanned up to four generations.
The boys attempted to make the best out of the cards they were dealt, yet the almost daily life-and-death stressors they experienced pushed them on the other side of the law.
The boys could hardly wait to be released from the center so they could prove to others that they could “make it on the outs.” They had fierce “I-will-show-them” attitudes. But the high rate of recidivism left them with a creditability problem. Some of the staff and counselors held out little promise for the boys.
This meant that the boys were virtually on their own upon release. They alone had to carry the torch (of self discipline) to find their way out of the darkness. So when I ran into Hope at Walgreens, he was still carrying his torch. He beamed with pride, telling me he was enrolled at a 4-year university.
I remembered working with Hope, who had been incarcerated multiple times and considered a “lost cause” by many at the center. A counselor advised him that it would be more appropriate for him to attend a community college, rather than set his sights on a university. Hope ignored this microaggression and followed his own path.
Michelle Obama, the former first lady, experienced a similar situation, as reported by the Washington Post. Obama told a group of low-income students that while in high school she was considering attending Princeton University as her college of choice. Her counselors warned her that she was too ambitious. She was told ‘you will never get into a school like Princeton.’ The sting never left her: “I still hear that doubt ringing in my head,” Obama said.
These life scenarios indicate that we still have a long way to go in reforming the cultures of our schools and juvenile justice system. When adults can’t see past their own faulty assumptions and preconceived notions about a youth’s innate abilities, then we risk crushing their dreams. How can youth be inspired to grow — let alone reform themselves — when cynical adults don’t believe that change is possible?
Hope was an extraordinary teen. He showed a lot of resiliency and strength to pursue his dreams in the face of overwhelming adult pessimism. Yet not all kids at the center were like Hope. Most of the teens at the center were influenced by the counselors’ outlook. The boys’ sense of despair was only deepened by the counselors’ cynical outlook and lack of hope in the youth, contributing to the cycle of recidivism. Burn-out by mental health counselors is prevalent in community health organizations and continues to be a real barrier in youth getting services that are safe, effective and non-discriminatory.
And this is the very ugly truth about the system. It can harm the very children it is trying to save.
Youth need not carry the torch alone. We can brighten our own beacon of hope in 2018 if we promote meaningful reform that truly gives troubled youth a fighting chance.
Share your thoughts below with me on ideas you have to reform the system. What has your experience been in working with adults in the system who have lost their ability to be effective in helping youth. How can we better help youth?
Reprinted From Kern River Courier December 15, 2017
Though the holidays are associated with joy and good tidings, they can also bring darkness. Feelings of sadness, loneliness and emptiness can resurface at this time. It’s very common for people to experience the holiday blues, so finding ways to manage our emotions can be helpful.
As a therapist, I often have to use the same techniques to manage my own emotions that I prescribed to my clients. This week I had to put these techniques to work after experiencing some tense moments at a family gathering in Los Angeles. A relative who was not invited to the event showed up, causing conflict, opening up deep wounds and dividing the family.
The family conflict greatly upset me, so as I drove back home along the 395 freeway, I contemplated how I would manage my internal distress and deal with a fractured family.
Incidentally, there is no better place to unpack existential angst than the drive up to Walker Pass. The desert can be quite comforting — a silent and desolate world where one can find the space to smooth out the jagged edges of life.
As I drove past the rugged, purple Scodie mountains, and marveled at the spiny cholla cactus gracing the remote desert landscape, I explored what I could do to take care of myself. This momentary pause to consider self-care options often provides the vision needed to guide us out of distressful times.
I decided it was essential for me to process what happened and feel my feelings (as ugly as they were). Negative emotions can transmute into negative energy if they are not expressed. In other words, bottled negative feelings and thoughts can contribute to disease and mental health conditions (which is why therapy is called the “talking cure”). I also recognized that it would not be helpful if I fixated on these negative thoughts and feelings. I had to find a balance between expressing my emotions in a healthy way, while not letting them consume me.
I considered those actions that would offset my mood. I could engage in “Retail Therapy,” (not an optimal choice); watch marathon episodes of I Love Lucy; eat lots of chocolate (also not a healthy option), take a hike, etc.
Most of these options did not appeal to me. I don’t feel like doing much when I am upset. Yet therein lies the work of self help — doing what is necessary to nurture our soul, regardless of how difficult it may be.
I decided that when I got back home, I would do yoga, journal and run a few errands. These activities got me through a dark day, and sometimes that’s the best we could hope for.
Managing emotions is daily work, and the more you practice at it, the better you get at it. When we get in front of our feelings —instead of stuck in them — we improve our ability to adapt to life’s curveballs.