Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Independent Study

It was the winter of 1973.  I was a senior at Syracuse University, majoring in Clinical Psychology.  It was a great program and I was learning terrific stuff.  But I was frustrated and disappointed.  I wanted to be a therapist.  In school I was studying learning theory, rat research and B.F. Skinner.  I didn’t think I was learning what I needed to be a therapist!  I went to see the Department Chairman. 
He listened me.  He tried to assure me that I was right where I was supposed to be.  But he felt challenged by my complaints.  He made an offer.   If I would take a telephone crisis counseling program that was occuring off campus, he would give me a 3 credit independent study.  Weekly, I would write up what I was learning in the language of Behavior Modification.  It was a good deal and I took it. 
It was better than a good deal.  The course was incredible.  It taught me basic therapy skills from a Carl Rogers perspective.  I learned about empathy, congruence, respect and genuineness.  It taught me how to give feedback to my clients, letting them know that I was hearing them and understanding them.  To this day I still use these skills.  
  I loved it.  However, all good things come to an end.  As the course wound down, I was asked to sign up for the telephones.  Being the rookie I was given an overnight shift.  
I was scared.  I didn’t know if I could do it.  I set in that little room dreading that the phone would ring.  As the hours rolled by I thought I might be spared talking to someone that night.  Then around 4 AM the phone rang.  I answered it and started talking to a woman who was at the end of her rope.  She wanted to end her life.  
I couldn’t tell you now what we said to each other.  We were on the phone for over two hours.  We both relaxed, got to know each other and had a good talk.  We considered her difficulties and  her options.  I could hear her attitude changing.  She knew I understood what she was feeling and the crisis passed.  She again had hope.  She thanked me profusely.  Somewhat reluctantly, we both ended the phone call.  
When I put the phone down, I felt elated.  She was now safe.  This was what I was meant to do.  Talking to people about their lives was going to be my life.  I was home.  

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Thunderbird

My mother did everything for me.  As a result, by the time I was 17, I was depressed and useless.    This lasted until after I grieved her death.  I don’t remember ever wanting to be dead, but I was self destructive.  Sometimes I didn’t even know when I was being stupid and risking my life.  It took me years to recognize one of my antics as self destructive. 
I was 16 years old when my father had his first heart attack.  He had a second one the following year, and his heart finally quit on him when I was 19 years old.  After the second heart attack, he was out of work for almost 6 months.  During his recovery, I was allowed to drive his car to school every day.  My High School was on the east side of Rochester, a good half hour hike.  At 17 years old I had a car.  
It wasn’t just any car.  My father had a 1967 baby-blue Thunderbird, with 390 horsepower under the hood.  It was a beauty.  I loved it and so did everyone that knew me.   Driving that car was the first time I ever felt ‘cool’ in my life.  I was too immature to respect what I had.
Our farm was on the corner of Manitou Road, which went North and South from Lake Ontario, to the rural areas below Rochester, N.Y.    I lived only 3 miles from the famous Erie Canal.  I am proud to say my Great-Grandfather was a Captain on the Eric Canal.  I used to ride over that canal at least once a day.  The bridge over the canal was probably a smooth quarter mile long and on the South side, the road dipped down and went under a railroad tressel.  In the early hours of the morning, there was rarely any traffic on the bridge.  
On three different occasions, I challenged that bridge.  I would floor the Thunderbird as it went up the bridge.  It would gain speed all the way up.  Then coming down the other side of the bridge, the car would hit 120 mph.  At that speed, you are aiming the car more then you are driving it.  The car would zip under the railroad tressel and as it came up the other side, it would do a Dukes of Hazzard.  My Thunderbird would leave the road and literally fly through the air.  I have no idea how far I went in the air.  But it lasted several seconds.  I thought this was the coolest thing.  I never told anyone about it.  It was my secret.  
It took me years to realize that this was crazy.  Here I was flying through the air with 2 tons of metal around me, totally out of control.  When I think about it now, I can see that if I had landed even the slightest bit cockeyed, I could easily have rolled the car and been a goner.  
Sometimes when I’m working with adolescents and they tell me some crazy thing they did that is incredibly dangerous, rather than being an obnoxious adult who tells them they shouldn’t take risks;  I tell them about driving the Thunderbird through the air and how I thought I was cool.  Now I can see it as totally self destructive.  When I tell them the story, they can see the risk I was taking.  When they look at risky behaviors through someone else’s eyes, it becomes real.  
I drove that Thunderbird 106,000 miles.  On a Sunday night in Bath, New York, while I was coming into town, I heard a big clunk from under the car.  Then, the car lost power.  The motor was running fine, but there was no response from the gas pedal.  As the car slowed, I looked in the rear view mirror.  Lying in the road was the drive shaft of the car.  It died heroically.  I will always love that car.