Archives: DVRT/SART

blogging about real issues: activate

This is a pretty good article about some of the controversy surrounding Chris Brown performing at the Grammys tonight. For the link-phobic, a quick summary: Three years ago, Chris Brown, at that time in a relationship with Rihanna, beat her so badly the night before the Grammys that she ended up in a hospital and he turned himself into the LAPD. Neither wound up performing. What followed was an absolutely ridiculous storm of apologeticism from most of Hollywood featuring such alarmingly neutral statements as “we should try to support everyone” — either not realizing or not caring that half of the “everyone” in question was someone who had, you know, beaten a woman. Now, three years later, Chris Brown is being invited back to the Grammys (who somehow managed to view themselves as the victim in this situation?) and it’s being treated like the return of some prodigal son, and like a landmark we should all celebrate as we ponder the ideas of redemption and second chances.

I have a few beefs with this.

The first is that honest to God, Chris Brown is one of the least repentant people I’ve ever seen. I’ve been following this whole story with some interest ever since February 2009, and I’ve never once seen him issue, formally or casually, anything that even came close to approximating a sincere apology. He’s been like a kid who was caught eating cookies before dinner: “sorry you caught me”. In addition to the seeming lack of any remorse, especially any made public, he’s also expressed a ridiculous number of sexist, homophobic, and other generally disgusting sentiments since then through the wonders of social media. (I’m hoping to come back and add links to this post, but for now I’m just struggling to get this content out.) Basically: he’s gross. When you’re a celebrity there’s a certain personality that you maintain for the general public, and from what I’ve been able to see while paying pretty careful attention to Chris Brown over the last three years, he really does seem to be a genuinely bad person. So where do redemption and second chances fit in when the guy in question isn’t sorry at all?

My second problem with this whole thing is what the article touched on: ignoring (at best) a domestic violence issue of this magnitude, focusing on a young, attractive, successful woman with an extremely broad fanbase, as a lot of mainstream entertainment media have done — and  completely blaming it on her at worst — sends a message to women who are not Rihanna that is endlessly hopeless.

I’m carrying a pager right now. I’ve spent the last six months learning to respond to domestic violence in Washtenaw County. I spend 96 (volunteer) hours a month responding, by phone or in person, to women who, immediately before I get to talk to them, were abused in intimate-partner relationships. Last week I went to the hospital to hold a woman’s hand while she struggled not to cry through a freshly-broken nose, and later that evening I counseled a woman who wasn’t sure whether to seek shelter because her husband isn’t always violent and he probably wouldn’t try to kill her fresh out of a jail release because he will probably respect his bond conditions.

Here are some things that I’ve learned through this volunteer work that I don’t think people are always aware of when they think about domestic violence:

No matter where you live, it happens where you are.

Domestic violence happens to women of all demographics. It happens across races. It happens across income levels. It happens across sexual orientations. It happens across ages. It happens to our neighbors, to our baristas, to our doctors, to our teachers, to our friends… and it happens to women who are often too afraid to come forward and ask for help. Because why would you ask for help if this is what happens to someone like Rihanna?

Unlike many of the calls I get every shift, nobody doubts the facts surrounding the incident between Chris Brown and Rihanna in February 2009. Nobody says “maybe she punched herself in the face”, nobody says “maybe she made everything up”. The doubt comes in when people have to make the connection between “Chris Brown hurt his girlfriend by hitting her in the face” and “so Chris Brown is an assailant”, a connection which frankly should be instantaneous. We live in a world where that somehow isn’t an instantaneous assumption — this entire case just highlights that disconnect — and that makes it very, very hard for any woman who’s even peripherally seen any coverage related to this case to come forward if something similar is happening to her and there’s even a chance that someone in her life may not believe her, or might blame her. And this needs to change, because that isn’t a world where domestic violence goes away.

on vacations, reflections, and rocks (these are a few of my favorite things)

I am finally finished with work, school, and DVRT for the rest of December — i.e., I am officially on a break, with NOTHING TO DO. Literally. Nothing. My days are filled with questions like “should I bake cookies today, or scones? hmm I’m going to Panera,” and “do I really need to take a shower today?” (because there’s AN ACTUAL LIKELIHOOD that the answer is NO, BECAUSE I MIGHT NOT LEAVE MY HOUSE) and wow maybe I should focus on the positives of being on vacation?? Tonight, there’s a holiday pop-up market in Ypsilanti that I didn’t have to check my planner before deciding to attend.

This feeling of not having anything to do is pretty foreign to me and it’s been compounded these last few days by the fact that we’re a week outside of Christmas and it’s sixty degrees out. Weather shifts for some reason are always really strange for me — it’s like my brain doesn’t know what to do if the weather outside isn’t textbook-cliche given the date — and between this and the (mandatory) self-reflection I’ve had to do recently for various classes, my introspective side is kicking into overdrive.

All of the self-analysis I’ve had to do for school and for DVRT point to one common theme: one of my biggest obstacles to helping is an almost crippling fear, but as time passes, my fear is melting away. One of my best friends is in town for the holidays right now and I was able to spend yesterday afternoon with him. I was on call last night, so we got to talking a little about that and he asked me a few questions, the most important of which was “are you still afraid when you go out onto calls?” My answer surprised me, really, because back in September it seemed like I would never get there, but I can say, honestly, that unless I’m getting called into the hospital, the answer is: no. I am not afraid anymore. Do I get apprehensive as I knock on a door? Does my heart break more often than I’d like when I’m talking to survivors? Do I still leave sometimes and wish I had said or done something different? Yes, yes, resoundingly yes. But I’m not afraid going in anymore. The difference between then and now is that now, I know that whatever happens, I can do it. I can get in and do some good, no matter how small. Which is a pretty good feeling.

It’s not really the end of the journey, though, like I thought it would be. I thought I would be afraid the entire time until I got to be A Good Counselor (whatever that means??) and then I would suddenly stop being afraid. Like so much else… this is wrong. I guess I can’t explain what’s different? Experience? Having had a chance to see the potential I do possess? The knowledge that I’m going to keep learning, refining, and getting better?

My basic skills class ended on Wednesday, and as part of the final class we had to give oral presentations. The last bit was an instruction to talk for a minute or so about “a topic of your choice related to professional helping” so obviously I chose to talk about river stones? (If you are wondering what the heck is my problem/how I am allowed to leave my house, I can tell you that you are not the only one/I don’t know.) Anyway, the deal with river stones is that they are pretty normal rocks (nothing special, nothing gem-y, just rocks that are in the right place at the right time) and through some intricate series of events, they wind up being transported down the length of a river. By the end of their journey, which is at times stressful and turbulent and which winds up taking them very, very far from where they’ve started, they are smooth and round, all their edges sanded off. You can actually tell generally how far a stone has traveled by its general shape.

Obviously my love for both metaphors and rocks has kept me coming back to this idea every time I feel like throwing my hands up and admitting defeat. I can’t express how many times I have sat at my desk and thought, river stone, river stone, river stone, as I decide to stumble through another assignment or another call. Another encounter, another rough edge gone.

This idea of constant refinement is somewhat challenging for me. I am kind of at a point in my life where I don’t really know what’s coming next. I am incredibly different, already, from the person I was in August. I have no idea who I’ll be a year from now. It’s pretty hard to contemplate that, to know that I’m sort of just along for the ride. Not knowing how I’ll change, only that I will. I really have no idea where the mouth of this river is.

BUT, for now, it’s winter break. I’m going to my parents’ house this weekend for the first time all semester to procure and decorate a Christmas tree. I’m not going to think about anything, for two blissful weeks, except my family and my friends. This little river stone is taking a break. ROCKHOUND OUT.

twilight at dawn & dusk

I have been without internet for two weeks and so much has happened. So much.


The blue river is grey at morning
and evening. There is twilight
at dawn and dusk. I lie in the dark
wondering if this quiet in me now
is a beginning or an end.

-Jack Gilbert, Waking at Night


I had two posts lined up before I lost the internet, one on language and how it affects us as advocates, and one on the It Gets Better Project musings. Since then, though, I’ve started working response team shifts, and I can’t post here without talking about that. Getting pages at four am, stumbling out of bed to talk quietly into my phone to sheriffs and survivors, scribbling down addresses and case numbers and “evidences of past abuse”. Counseling, alone at my glass desk, the entire world narrowed to the woman on the other end of the line, talking softly to me, the crickets outside my window the only sounds filling our silences. Going back to bed and looking at the person sleeping next to you and knowing that the heaviness you feel in your heart is something for you, for only you and the person who gave it to you and feeling what it’s like to share such a link with someone you’re unlikely ever to meet. Realizing that the heaviness you feel, you feel because someone gave it to you, because a stranger trusted you with the things that hurt the very most. Two weeks, and everything’s changed.


The world changes when you force yourself to think about everyone in it. It’s a stretch, because the world is big and people are small. I am small. I am a small person in a big world, a world that is too big for me to ever hope to understand everyone, and the thing is that understand is such a romantic word. I was a scientist before I was anything else. In science we talk about understanding and equate it so often with learning, when sometimes it’s just the opposite. Sometimes understanding is unlearning. Sometimes understanding is seeing.

new days to throw your chains away

Tonight’s post is going to break with tradition (? we are apparently defining words very loosely right now) and not really discuss my classes, per se, because I just finished the first big chunk of a very intensive training for a new volunteer position. I’m going to be working for a minimum of six months as a crisis intervention volunteer on Washtenaw County’s domestic violence response team. The work amounts to having three or four day-long shifts per month where I (and a partner) respond, somehow, to every call related to domestic violence that gets routed through WC’s police switchboard. We respond to survivors at their home or in the hospital (if an arrest of their assailant has been made), over the phone (if an arrest has not been made), or at the jail (if the center believes that an arrest has been made, but that the police’s suspect is actually the survivor in the grander picture, which apparently happens depressingly often). The main objectives here are: to comfort/reassure/empathize with the survivor; to assess whether shelter is an appropriate/accessible option for them; to go over the legalities of their position with them and help them to determine what their next step is in that sense; to safety-plan with them, if they’re ready to do so; and generally to ensure that we’ve done everything we can to advocate for the survivor in a short-term, crisis setting.

Obviously, a position like this requires an immense amount of training, and I’ve spent about twenty-four hours this weekend receiving it (I’ll do more next weekend, as well). I was nervous going into the training, and here’s why: this is my first major responsibility in a counseling role. What if I hated it? What if I was bad at it? (I couldn’t decide which would be worse.) Either way, I felt like, one way or another, this training would represent a big change in my life.

Three days later, I can tell you that I didn’t hate it, and I wasn’t bad at it. One thing I’ve noticed so far is that it seems like there are two major parts of counseling: knowing what to say, and knowing how to say it. I think I can pretty confidently say that I’m pretty good at the second one. As long as I can remember, people have told me I’m a good listener. My mom always compliments me on how quickly I form relationships with people: tellers, cashiers, baristas, etc. I taught classes for a year and a half, and one of the biggest pieces of feedback I consistently received, both informally and on written evaluations, was how approachable I am and how comfortable my students felt with me. It took me a long time to feel comfortable talking about this, but I think now I can pretty safely say that I am one of the more empathetic people I know, that I’m a good listener, that I’m just good at getting people to trust me. I don’t think about it. It just happens.

The big difference, though, between establishing an immediate rapport with a barista and establishing one with a client is that after the barista hands me my drink, I get to look at her, thank her for doing such a lovely job as always, wish her a good day, and peace out until I need coffee again the next day. When I establish trust with a client (or a, uh, student playing a client, heh), it’s so that they can look over at me and I can say, “It sounds like you’re saying you’re uncomfortable with how your mother-in-law talks to you. How does that make you feel? No wait, shit. I didn’t mean to say that. I meant, er, does that make you feel, er… uncomfortable?” Well, yeah, the client says. I actually just said that.

What I’m getting at is that I am pretty clearly way better at one of the skills necessary for counseling (knowing how to speak to people) than the other (knowing what to say to people). I blank a lot of the time. So today, during training, our facilitator was wrapping things up, and asked whether anyone had any questions.

“I do,” one girl said, and cleared her throat: “I guess I still don’t really know what we actually say on a call.”

It was like the whole room had let out one collective breath at that (thank god I hadn’t been the only one thinking that). The facilitator explained that it was okay that we were feeling that way at this point. Almost this entire weekend was spent talking about the social context for domestic abuse, i.e., rape culture, etc.; about barriers that survivors face, and how those barriers change depending on a survivor’s specific social context; and with a panel made up of four survivors who number among the most admirable women I’ve ever met. Next weekend, we’ll spend a lot of time talking about specifics and logistics of a response call, learning about legalities, and learning about exactly what the hell it is that you say to the woman in front of you.

Either way, I was glad that she had spoken up, because I feel that way pretty much always. During my classes I’m never really able to fall into a groove, never really able to just slip into the conversation the way that some other students in my work group are able to. My brain has to keep working constantly, scrambling to make sure I’m keeping up with the client, and to make sure I don’t look like I’m scrambling. I felt really self-conscious about this for the first two days of training, but then I realized: this struggle is one of the reasons I decided to volunteer for this job in the first place. Getting a lot of training, and later a lot of practice, talking with clients will be good for me, and I’m excited to do it in a context that really, really matters, and to learn how to even out my skill-set a bit. People start somewhere. Anybody who’s really good at something learns how to be so. I probably need to get better at remembering that.

© 2018 Caroline Horste

I am neither a professional nor an expert, and nothing here should be taken as counsel or legal advice. Along the same vein, nothing here should be taken as representing the views of anybody but myself, including my employers or the organizations I volunteer for. -CH