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What is progress?
At one point in my checkerboard career, I worked as a life coach in an ex-offender re-entry program. I had zero experience as a social worker but had been hired because of my career counseling experience. At least that’s what I was told. My friends had a different take: “They hired you because you had a pulse,” they said. No danger of a swelled head with my social circle.
My first day on the job, I was the only one in the office. Everyone else’s start date was the following week, including my boss. On my desk was a stack of brochures for the program and at the bottom of the glossy cover page, complete with a stock photo of happy white people, there was this: Axis I required.
As soon as I had my computer password, I Googled Axis I. Turns out it was part of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) and meant that everyone admitted to the program had to have a diagnosis on that axis – Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Substance Addiction, and other serious mental health issues. (For those familiar with the DSM, this was before the DSM-5 was published, which eliminated the axis system).
My excitement turned to panic. What I knew about mental health issues was the little I’d learned from my own therapy experiences. With no education, how was I ever going to help anyone?
I soon discovered the program had a psychiatrist on staff, as everyone admitted was on some type of psychiatric medication, and there would be a therapist. It didn’t take long for me to realize that most of the participants had been medicated while incarcerated and even with the little I knew, I questioned if they’d been doped up just to keep them placid. I remember thinking very early on, “When are they going to come up with a diagnosis for pissed off?”
The job was hard for all of us, but there was a revolving door on the therapist’s position. Before the end of the first year, we were on number three. Kendra was a straight shooter and suffered no fools. I found her attitude and demeanor refreshing in a world where the politics of acquiring and maintaining money to exist was exhausting.
We shared the office and often had intense conversations while eating sandwiches at our desks. She provided me with a master’s level education in social work and mental health for which I will always be grateful. Kendra is the one I went to when I needed advice or help with a client.
One in particular troubled me. He’d been arrested for DUI a sixth time and the judge had sentenced him to a year and a day, which meant he’d served his time in state prison rather than the county jail. Although the program offered to provide rent for a half-way house and his son had invited him to stay with him while he was still on probation, he chose to make a deal with the manager of a Public Storage.
In exchange for keeping the lot clean, he was allowed to pitch a tent after 8 pm and use the maintenance sink to wash and brush his teeth. My upper middle-class suburban upbringing was appalled. How could he sleep outside when he could have a bed somewhere? I didn’t understand.
I went to Kendra with my concern. She asked a lot of questions, most of which I had answers for. He didn’t want to stay in the halfway house because he didn’t want to be tempted with the alcohol and drugs he knew would be available. His son’s wife despised him, and he was afraid it would be so tense it would put him in danger of drinking again. He’d been sober the entire time he was incarcerated and said he was committed to staying that way.
“Sounds like he’s made progress,” Kendra said.
“How can you call that progress?” I asked. “He’s sleeping in a sleeping bag at a Public Storage.”
“But he’s aware enough to know that either of the choices you gave him would compromise his sobriety,
she answered. “That’s progress.”
I understood what she was saying, but I didn’t. And she saw that.
“Somebody I went to graduate school with worked in a residential facility for juvenile offenders,” she started. “She had this one boy who had stabbed a classmate in the lunchroom of his high school. For the entire eight months he was locked up, she worked with him to get to the root of his anger and taught him techniques to manage it when it snuck up on him. When he left, she was delighted he’d been discharged early. She tucked his file in the closed cases drawer, proud of the work they’d done together.”
She took a bite of her turkey on wheat.
“A year later the same kid shows up in her office. She was devastated. Or at least her ego was. She questioned whether the progress she thought he’d made was even real. The boy was not happy to be locked up again and when she read the file, she discovered he’d been arrested for another fight. ‘What happened?’ she asked him. ‘Dude pissed me off,’ he answered. ‘But what about all the tools I taught you?’ He looked at her and said, ‘I didn’t bring a knife this time.’
That was the moment I got it.
Progress isn’t how you define it. It’s every baby step you take, regardless of whether or not you see fit to count it.
This story popped up in my mind this past week as I was drowning in the overwhelm of everything that needed to be done, rather than taking a moment to celebrate what I had already accomplished. This is a lesson I’ve learned repeatedly since Kendra told me that story. Evidently, there’s a bit of a stubborn default I’ve not managed to transform.
What I find is I tend to revert to the old behavior when I’m tired. And I’ve been exhausted after completing my second move in six months. Fortunately, I have a pretty good therapist and wonderful friends who remind me of what progress really is.
As I sit here typing this, still surrounded by boxes with nothing on the walls, I can honestly say my entire being has shifted. A few days ago, I challenged myself to write down five things every day that I need to give myself credit for. I’m doing it for a week and on day three the world looks different.
So, I’m going to challenge you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stuck, like everything you want is over there and you are over here, why not try it? Five things. Every day. What do you need to celebrate? Give yourself credit for? Try it for a week. Let me know what happens.