It's taken several weeks to start breathing again since leaving the hardest job I ever had. Weeks to sit down and reflect in a way that's shareable. Weeks of wondering what happened over the past two years working as an LPC-Intern, or the past five years for that matter, when my journey to become a counselor began. It feels like a blur, like a rush of activity that suddenly stopped to reveal stillness. Now there's stillness, and space and time to share an important story.
I'm a middle-class, middle-aged, white female in the urban core of Dallas, TX. I'm a wife, a yoga student and teacher, a brand new counselor, and a mother of two ever-present reasons to persevere for good. I'm a social justice advocate and a believer that humans have an intrinsic right to dignity. And I'm certain that not everyone in my community, in my city, enjoys that right...
So where do I begin in the story of how I arrived at that certainty?
These are all themes I could run with...but where to start? Maybe I'll start at the place where I realized I couldn't breathe... and I suppose it's ironic for a yoga teacher to find herself gasping.
It was the smell of the apartment building where I worked. In the corridors, there was the aroma of cigarrettes, pot and crack cocaine. I smelled neglected bodies and spaces. Many of the residents had previously lived outside, in shelters, or had jumped from couch to couch before coming to find the subsidized housing offered there. Early childhood trauma, fractured family relationships, absent caregivers, abuse and violence were common themes in their personal stories. All of this though was outlined with the promise of POTENTIAL, and daily I heard residents describe their efforts to overcome barriers stacked against them. I bought an air freshener because the odor of the building lingered within me after coming home at night, keeping me from resting. I remember using the little plug-in diffuser in my office and thinking, "this doesn't help at all." I guess that's when I resigned myself to shallow breathing under the weight of the task at hand.
And limited oxygen surely didn't help me keep pace. I felt like a mouse on a wheel as soon as I stepped into work each day, responding and reacting to the couple hundred residents whom I was tasked to counsel toward self-sufficiency, words whose meaning became unclear as I practiced what I'd been trained and listened with empathy. Joining with and entering the world of the client is for me, the magical part of counseling, but it landed me in unfamiliar and frankly, terrifying terrain. I had been insulated my whole life from the basic problem of survival. I'd always been safe in my surroundings, had enough food to eat, etc. How now do I cope with the blunt reality that I've taken my comfort for granted? How do I cope with the lingering feeling that my privilege has played a part in my clients' pain? Poverty is a deeply traumatic experience, not only because basic physical needs aren't met, but also and just as importantly, because of the feeling of shame, inferiority, and being shunned by the community.
I built some amazing relationships with clients working toward and accomplishing impressive goals, but it became clear that I, alone, would have limited impact. Having a home after experiencing homelessness just solves the problem of shelter. There's also the business of food... and clothing... and medicine... and personal safety....which were often in short supply, and me and my team spent a good amount of time aiming to fix those deficits.
It was the time spent helping clients help each other, which lifted my spirit and gave me the energy to maintain pace with shallow breath. I watched little fledgling relationships develop between neighbors. I watched friendships blossom, and I helped negotiate the interpersonal struggles entailed therein. And the true purpose of this counseling business, my new professional identity, became clear to me. When I support another person, show up for them no matter what, and see the sameness between us while acknowledging our diversity, a sacred healing space is created where POTENTIAL is nurtured. And not just my client's potential, but also my own.
So it's with new awareness that I'm taking the long slow breaths that I've missed. Sharing my stories creates healing for me and direction for my new career. Also, I share so that it may prompt dialogue about the ways we can support one another while nurturing ourselves, because these endeavors are one and the same. They are two ends of the same spectrum, and a shining example of the artfully-created duality of our world. A reminder that good and evil exist together, that both exertion and rest create health, and that solitude and community are equal and opposite sides of the same coin.
I wouldn't trade my time working with those suffering the psychological effects of poverty for anything, but from it I have enjoyed a welcome break. The socioeconomic inequalities in our city are overwhelming, and the good people choosing to delve in and share in the experience of them, do suffer a toll. It's important that helpers take time to care for themselves, to stay aware of the effects of their work on their personal lives, and to renew their energy to continue.
Kambria Kennedy-Dominguez, Counselor and yoga teacher specializing in mental health, substance abuse and wellness.