Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Boundaries of the Job & Crying in Class

Yesterday I had an experience that brought up an important question for me. Is there a limit to our therapist role? When we leave a place of employment for the day, do we go back to being Mr. or Ms. Could-Be-Anyone?

Here's what happened... I was on a train going to class and at one of the stops, a duffel bag flew into the train and crashed against the wall, followed by a man who fell over it and sobbing, banged his head against the walls and punched at the seats. Once the doors closed and we were all locked in there with him, moving at train-speed underground, he stood and said, "Please! Why won't anybody help me. My mother just died. I want to go home. I am going crazy. Please someone help me. I just need to get out of here," and continued by sobbing to god and begging for the reversal of time and return of his mother etc. with his arms waving all around. I don't know if what he said was true or this was a desperate attempt at sympathy for drug money, but true or false, this man was in a state of crisis. I didn't really care what he said. Everyone tried to look away. Passengers near him scootched to further locations and froze.

I didn't scootch and wanted to catch his eye and motion that he could sit with me. I don't know what I intended to say or do, but I felt like I needed to talk to him. His eyes were wild and weeping and although he pleaded to us, he didn't seem to see anyone. So, I stood up and walked over. Even standing right in front of him, it was as if he looked through me while he screamed for anyone to do anything to help him. I felt like a ghost, powerless and invisible. I touched his arm and asked what he needed and he told me a ticket for the commuter train. All I had was one dollar, but I gave it to him. He told me I was the only person who talked to him that day and went back to begging to the god who stole his mother. At the next stop soon after, he got off just like he got on, tossing his bag and then falling on top of it in tears.

I had an intense desire to follow him, but I didn't. I felt like I needed to do something. A person in that state shouldn't be standing near regularly oncoming trains for one thing. I felt like I had a duty to do crisis intervention right there all by my rookie self... Hello Messiah Complex.

While he was on the train, I felt perfectly calm, although unsure what to do in this public, fast-moving place. Once he left I was triggered to my own feelings when I lost my mom and worried that he was about to commit suicide. I felt like puking and bursting into tears all at once. So, I watched my "happy place" music videos and tried to use distraction skills I teach other people in order to keep myself together.

I made it to class, pregnant with sick and sad emotions, but keeping it contained, walked in and burst into tears in front of everyone. Totally not my coolest moment, but an important lesson in vicarious trauma and causing me to question if therapists have a duty to play therapist all the time. It also reminded me I carry my own shit closer to the surface than I would like.

On a happier note. This is my favorite distraction skill happy place video.
I have used "video therapy" as a crisis intervention with adolescents who were not acting unlike this man on the train. Sometimes with teens, "Have you seen the new Black Eyed Peas video? It has robots!" is a phrase that works... not a line I would have tried on train guy, but if you work with kids who have violent tantrums over minor frustrations, an IPod with videos is a great thing to keep in your pocket. It helped me not have a train tantrum this time.


  1. my supervisor would say -- do you need to make art to process that? it can be tricky to want to help and want to maintain boundaries in a public setting. i do hope he was able to find a safe place.

  2. Yes Sonrie, that sounds about right. Mine said, "What can the class do to help you!" And I said, "We need to make some art right now!" And we did. And it was good. Amen.

  3. having a martyr/selfless complex is normal for many nurturers, so don't feel bad.
    some of us have bleeding hearts, and feel the pain of others. some are robots.
    like in the video.
    i used to feel it was mu responsibility to help each person i could, but often it left me empty to help me.
    not good.
    now i have better boundaries, and say a prayer for those i simply cannot get involved with to help.

    i love the art-making answer you got.
    i need to be in that class...

    do you post your project assignments before you complete them? i'd love to do some...

  4. Thank you for the comment Violet! What sort of project assignments would you consider? I'm open to post suggestions.