…Oh Crap!!! I thought. The hair on my arms stood up, and I immediately knew that shutting the door was a big mistake. Everything inside me was screaming danger, danger…
It was in the spring of the year 2000. I was doing an internship at the University of Utah’s bone marrow transplant unit, and on this particular day I was screening prospective transplant candidates, by giving them psychological assessments.
Bone marrow transplantation is a difficult and lengthy procedure which has the potential of causing a person to regress emotionally under the strain. It’s important to know in advance potential problems that could arise.
I had just said goodbye to a lovely 15 year-old girl with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, when I walked into the waiting room to get my next patient. “Mr. So in So, I’m ready for you,” I said, clip board in hand.
Looking back, I don’t know if I was too new to understand such courtesies as eye contact and introducing myself, or if I was just lost in a cloud of sadness from my previous interview. Whatever it was, my neglect proved to be disastrous.
He stood up and followed me to my office, which was a tiny room on the 5th floor, overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. After he walked through the door and took his seat, I shut the door as I always did to provide privacy, and turned around to look at him for the very first time.
Oh Crap!!! I thought. The hair on my arms stood up, and I immediately knew that shutting the door was a big mistake. Everything inside me was screaming danger, danger!
There wasn’t anything unique about his appearance. He wasn’t covered in tattoo’s and piercings. He wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t wearing a t-shirt that suggested anything provocative…there was just something about him.
I quickly assessed the situation. Should I open the door and let him know I was scared, or should I ignore my fear? After all, maybe I’m just being irrational. I chose the latter, which by the way, I learned to never do again.
It turns out my instincts were correct. This man had been released from prison the day before, his term shortened because of a leukemia diagnosis. Throughout the interview he baited me by boasting about his criminal escapades.
“Do you see all of those homes out there?” he said pointing out the window overlooking the valley. “I hid in the bushes and looked through many of those windows, watching women undress without them ever knowing it.”
Following through with my attempt to stuff my fear, I pressed on asking the interview questions. “So, Mr. So in So, have you had any surgeries or ever been hospitalized?”
Instead of answering the question, he said, “I’m scaring you aren’t I?”
“You’re not scaring me”, I said with a lump growing in my throat.
“Yes I am, I am scaring you,” he said.
“You are not,” I said forcing a smile.
“Yes I am. Do you want to know how I know?” he said with a sneer on his face.
“Yes, how do you know,” I said smugly trying to keep the upper hand.
“Because, you have big red blotches all over your chest.”
And then I knew, he knew. I was wearing a blue knit V-neck sweater.
Just as a side note I did not recommend him for transplant. My recommendations were ignored, but thankfully I wasn’t asked to work with him again. During the course of his treatment he held a doctor hostage. The hospital security team was called in and it was a standoff that lasted for quite some time, ending with a strategically placed shot of Haldol.
Skip forward to early fall that same year. The weather was hot in September, and this time I was doing an internship at Valley Mental Health, an outpatient-counseling clinic.
The temperature outside was nearing 100 degrees. I sat down next to a colleague for our weekly staff meeting, and as soon as I got comfortable, he leaned over to me and whispered, “What’s with the turtle neck sweater? Aren’t you hot?”
After the meeting was over I shared my story of the ex-prisoner. I explained that after that interview, every time I found myself in a threatening situation, or even the slightest bit uncomfortable, I would break out in red blotches.
When I felt the red blotches coming on, I’d get embarrassed and that made them worse. It had gotten so bad, it felt like I was wearing blotches most of the time.
I didn’t EVER want to be in a situation again where:
1. A client could see that I was nervous
2. Somebody could think they had the power to unnerve me
3. People could see that my emotions had control over me
Wearing turtlenecks seemed like the easiest solution 😦
My colleague shared with me that he was a student of Buddhist psychology, and he thought he could help me with my problem. I was desperate and agreed to listen.
“Barb, you need to take the turtle necks off and put your V-necks on again. You need to embrace your blotches. Welcome them. Literally say, “Oh blotches, so good to see you. Thank you for coming. It’s so nice of you to come and remind me I’m feeling powerful emotions.”
“Are you serious?” I said looking dumbfounded. He assured me he was very serious and then reminded me: emotion’s job is to get our attention. If it senses it has our attention, it can leave. When we stuff emotion, it thinks, hmmm…she’s not listening. We need to turn the volume up, hence the blotches.
“But what should I do about my clients when the blotches come?” He said,” Just say, ‘Yep, here come my blotches. When I feel things strongly I get blotches.’ Just own them, he said. Act as if they’re no big deal. Your clients will see you modeling emotional regulation, and besides, they’ll see you’re human.”
Although it seemed counter intuitive, I decided to give it a try. I took the turtlenecks off and returned to wearing weather appropriate clothes.
I was hoping that would be enough…you know…show those blotches who was boss, but I wasn’t that lucky. It being the first month of actually practicing therapy, I had many experiences that brought the blotches out.
After that conversation, each time the blotches came, I welcomed them, somewhat the same way the Buddha did when Mara came for tea. See:
It became a game that I actually looked forward to. My friend was right. My clients did appreciate my honesty and they learned how to manage their version of blotches right along with me.
One day, again in a staff meeting, I was called upon to give an impromptu brief diagnostic formulation of a client. “Aughh! I’ve never done this before, and everyone is watching me. What if I make a fool out of myself? Everyone is going to see how inexperienced I am. I better start welcoming my blotches…at least they’re my friends.”
“Welcome blotches. Thank you so much for coming…but wait…where are you? Blotches, where are you?”
I had overcome my blotches. They had accomplished their work and could go home. Over the years they have returned when I am in the most difficult situations, and I welcome them back as validation that I am truly going though a hard time.
We have an amicable relationship, and therein I found my real power.
PLEASE take 14 minutes and watch the Ted Talk below. I believe it is the scientific explanation for why embracing your uglies works. Not only that, but it changes the way we think about stress. The implication being, “It’s what we make stress mean that’s the real killer.” If you can’t watch it right now, do yourself a big favor and bookmark it so that you can come back to it later.
That’s it for this week.
Until next time, may you find your cup half full 🙂
Barbara (The Blog Whisperer)