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