I have been a counselor since the 1970s when I finished my masters degree in counseling and started working at a mental health center. This fact not only makes me ancient (according to my children) but it also makes me well versed in the profession. Counseling has changed considerably since the ’70s and is still evolving. However, human nature is not progressing at such a rapid clip. On this page you will find six stories of my adventures and therapeutic interventions over the years. The individuals in these stories, except for me, have had their identities disguised. However, their concerns are both unique and universal. Some of these stories are humorous so be prepared to grin now and then. More of these stories (120 in fact) can be found in the second edition of my book Becoming a Counselor: The Light, the Bright, and the Serious which is published by the American Counseling Association. It makes a great present for Christmas day, a special birthday, an anniversary, the Chinese New Year, an international travel experience, a Bar Mitzvah, a baptism, a “Welcome to the Neighborhood” gift, a Memorial Day memory, a Mardi Gras giveaway, a “Glad-you-are-out-of-the-hospital” celebration, a “Good-luck-with-the-colonoscopy”event, or just about any other “special” occasion! (All the proceeds from the sale of the book go directly to the American Counseling Association Foundation).
1. The Calling
The sun was low in the sky as I hit the Washington, DC beltway. I was driving from New Haven, Connecticut, to Atlanta, Georgia, in a 1968 Mustang and was fighting fatigue and the glare off the windshield. Other cars were passing me by, and I wondered if life might not be doing the same unless I made an adjustment and shifted gears. I was a second-year student at Yale Divinity School, and through a self-assessment of my thoughts and feelings over the past few months, I had realized I was not going to be a divine, let alone a minister. Although that revelation may seem minor now, it was a major epiphany for me in the spring of 1970. I had had a plan for 21 years to follow in my maternal grandfather’s footsteps. I had been named for him (“Samuel Templeman”), grown up on Church Street, and been a member of a very religious family. The agenda was loaded. I always thought I would spend my Sunday mornings behind a pulpit (most likely standing on a Coca-Cola crate) but definitely not sitting in a pew or sleeping late. Now, reality had set in, and I was headed south both literally and figuratively.
Yet, as fate would have it that day, I did not make it all the way to my parents’ home in Atlanta. Instead, I wound up spending the night in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the city that was the home to my undergraduate alma mater, Wake Forest University. So the next morning, before completing my journey, I decided to visit the campus and the former Dean of Students, Dr. Tom Elmore, an administrator I had known and trusted for a number of years. Tom had recently resigned the Dean of Students position to start a counselor education program. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him of my struggles, and with his best attending skills, he listened. Then he said five words that changed my life.
“Why don’t you try counseling?”
Not realizing that he meant that maybe I should seek personal counseling, I thought he was implying that I should enroll in a counseling program. Thus, the next fall, having finished Yale, I matriculated into the counseling program at Wake Forest. It was a move filled with the instant recognition that the profession would be my psychological home for life.
2. Encountering the Unexpected: Bandits
It was a hot summer afternoon in North Carolina. I was driving down rural roads to my first job in a mental health center following the morning of my graduation. With a master’s of counseling degree in hand, I was sure that little stood between me and success other than the 50 miles from the city of Winston-Salem to the little town of Wentworth. Thus, on that June day I took in the scenery and daydreamed. However, my euphoria was disrupted by an unexpected event along the way. There before me, in hand-painted letters, were these words on a signpost: “Bandits—Straight Ahead.”
“Holy Lone Ranger!” I said to myself. “Where am I going, and will I get there in one piece?” (My new employer had failed to tell me that I might encounter some mid-route turbulence on the way to work.)
Nevertheless, out of curiosity and in trepidation, I continued. As I drove I saw other equally crude but well-constructed signs informing me of the presence of bandits—15 miles, 10 miles, 5 miles, 1 mile, and finally “just around the corner.” In a gallows humor I muttered anxiously to myself: “If it pays to advertise, these guys are going to make a killing.” Thus, as I drove the last few hundred yards, I did so knowing I had been forewarned.
To my relief, however, what I encountered around that last bend in the road was not dangerous. Rather, it was a dilapidated wooden building, badly in need of repair, with a bundle of items piled out in front and a banner over the door that read: “Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! My brother steals and I sell it. Welcome to Bandits!”
While I passed up the opportunity to go view what was hot (and what was not), the memory of that day has stayed with me over the years. The reason, I think, is the impact and message of the road signs that I read. What they conveyed outwardly and what was displayed ultimately was a dichotomy. Similarly, when we meet with clients, we may receive initial signs that do not reveal the reality of their lives. On such occasions, the experiences we have turn out differently than anything we would ever have imagined on our way to work.
3.“Uh-huh” Is Never Enough
My initial education and credential as a counselor was a master’s degree. I did my practicum/internship in the campus counseling center in a Rogerian, person-centered fashion. I said “uh-huh” long before the late Ray Charles and Pepsico ever thought it was the right thing to do in their commercials of the late 1990s. Amazingly, my clients got better, and when I left the center I carried Rogerian techniques and great optimism with me to the rural mental health facility where I was initially employed. I was the “uh-huh counselor,” “Mr. Reflective,” and I was ready to heal the world. My expectations of becoming another Carl Rogers quickly and dramatically faded, however, the first week of my employment when I realized that “uh-huh” is never enough.
The case that awakened me came on the Friday of the first week of work. All during the week preceding that event, my main job had been to learn how to play cards with clients who were severely disturbed. Growing up in a strict Baptist home with a mother who was a PK (preacher’s kid), I had never been allowed to possess playing cards, let alone play card games. I am sure the director of the mental health center thought that learning such games would be good for me and the clients who came to the center to play on a regular basis. At first it was fun, but I grew restless as the week wore on.
I was tired of dealing (and losing) and anxious to see real neurotic people who I thought needed my services. Sure enough, at 4:59 p.m. on the first Friday of my career, a call came to the center from a social service agency that was requesting help in an emergency. I was standing by the secretary when the call came in, awkwardly shuffling cards in my hands out of a sense of boredom while simultaneously shuffling my feet slowly in anticipation of an opportunity. As the conversation dragged on, I shuffled my feet faster as the secretary introduced my availability to deliver services to the people at the agency in a way I will never forget.
“All our good people are seeing clients right now,” she stated. “However, we do have a new person we just hired. He’s as green as an early summer tomato and I don’t know much about him except he’s not very good at playing cards. However, if you are really desperate we will send him over. Are you really desperate, ma’am?” The reply was affirmative, and before the secretary and the person she was speaking to could say “Jokers are wild,” I was off to the agency about five miles away.
When I arrived I was courteously and skeptically greeted and told that the person I was going to see was literally banging his head into the wall in a room at the end of a hallway. I was offered the opportunity to have someone from the agency go into the room with me if I requested. But I assured everyone that this case was fairly routine in mental health circles (after my introduction by the secretary, I was afraid to admit I hadn’t a clue as to what to do). So I entered the room feeling a great kinship for Daniel in the lion’s den and yet realizing faith, in this case, would probably not pull me from the jaws of my inadequacies or deliver me from my pride.
To make a long story short, what I found in the room was a middle-aged man with long shaggy hair and faded blue overalls knocking his head quite hard against a cinder block wall. My previous training would have told me to be empathetic and probe by saying after each hit on the wall something like, “How does that make you feel?” I might also reflect and say something like, “I hear your head going thud, thud, thud against that wall pretty regularly. Tell me about that.” However, I was more direct and behavioral and stated, “I’m from the mental health center. If you really want help, stop doing that.” He looked at me in a sheepish, stunned manner (as if to say, “Why didn’t somebody say that about 20 minutes ago?”), and amazingly enough, he quit.
Sometimes being direct and specific can help you and your clients be realistic and get better. The theory I entered that situation with was alright but my client was all wrong for it. The next semester I enrolled in my first behavioral counseling course. I also listened to my clients even more closely after that, especially their nonverbal language.
4. The Locked Ward
Having worked for a mental health center for a few months, I was informed that I and “Nurse Nancy” would regularly start visiting clients from the county who were at the regional mental hospital. The idea was to help them begin to make a transition back to our community. It seemed interesting, and I noticed with amusement that the coffee they served at the hospital was poured into Mellaril mugs.
“Nothing to fear,” everyone assured me. “Just look straight ahead, trust the experience of the personnel on the locked wards, and stick with more seasoned professional colleagues” (such as, in this case, the nurses). So I entered my first locked ward, close to the side of Nurse Nancy, looking stern like an Army commando and quietly saying repetitively under my breath the 23rd Psalm and the Boy Scout motto.
All went well for about 10 feet. Then a rather large woman from the back of the ward spotted us and with loud shouts and angry motions started coming toward us. I looked to Nurse Nancy for reassurance, but I quickly noticed her eyes were glazed over like a Krispy Kreme donut, and she had what is known in the clinical literature as “tonic immobility.” (I could have probably used a gin and tonic myself then, but there was no time.) With the woman closing in and no help in sight, I decided to survive by grabbing the keys from my colleague and escaping. There was just one problem. Nurse Nancy was rigid as a two by four, and being frozen in fright, she was not about to release the keys that would have given me freedom.
Thus, I did the most prudent thing I knew—I ran. I was faster than the woman (thank goodness or I might not be writing this story), and there were strategically located support beams on the ward that I could use to run around and wear her out. Finally orderlies arrived (I now know why they call them orderlies) and peace was restored. Nurse Nancy, still clutching the keys, and I then departed unceremoniously. I was wiser and a bit more frazzled and fatigued than when we arrived. But I also realized the absurdity of what had just happened.
From that experience I learned to stay flexible in counseling and never passively depend on a co-counselor to make the situation better. I also came to realize that sometimes your best asset in counseling may not be your words but your actions, in this case behavior involving my feet. Finally, I learned anew how close the comic and the tragic are to each other. I could have been hurt if I had remained immobile. Instead, by keeping my head and using my legs, I was able to put distance between the woman and me and ultimately to place the incident in perspective.
5. Tex Ritter Smith
One of the lightest and yet most anxious moments in my counseling career came about the time Debbie Boone was singing “You Light Up My Life.” You may remember that song, but chances are if you do that you are now trying to forget it. But at the time of the song’s initial popularity, I was a counselor in a county mental health center that was housed in a pre-Civil War building that if Sherman had ever found, he would have refused to burn because it looked like it might collapse without any human intervention.
One day at the center a rather large mountain of a man, named Tex, came in for his first appointment. What made him a bit unusual was the fact that he had a gun in a holster strapped to his side. I was upstairs in my office, but my faithful secretary, Sa-rah (she actually pronounced her name “Say-Rah,” not Sarah somewhat like a football cheer: “Say Rah, Say Rah, Say, Rah, Rah, Rah!), quickly let me know that Tex and his six shooter had arrived. She was slightly anxious, and I must admit I had concern, too.
Nevertheless, I came downstairs from my office to find Tex in the waiting room. I introduced myself, shook his hand, and then said to him as he stood up,
“You know, Tex, we don’t allow firearms in our counseling sessions. They have a way of frightening the counselors. However, we can arrange to take care of your gun while you and I talk. Come with me.”
I then took him over to Sa-rah’s desk, gave her one of those knowing winks that means “play along with me here,” and said to Tex,
“Sa-rah, our receptionist, used to be a cowgirl. She’s from the West you know. Sa-rah, tell Tex where you are from.”
Without blinking an eye or seeming to understand anything that was going on, Sa-rah said in a rather monotone voice, “I’m from Mayodan, North Carolina.”
Trying to put a good spin on her answer, I replied: “Yes, Mayodan, North Carolina, where the Mayo and Dan Rivers converge, where the deer and the porcupine play, where seldom is heard a discouraging word or any sounds other than wild noises from animals and cowboys. You know, Tex, some people say that Mayodan is where the West really begins. There are no buffalo there, but they do have an ostrich farm. Tex, have you ever tangled with an ostrich?”
Unimpressed, Tex just grunted.
“There’s no rapport being built here,” I thought, but I continued the conversation, giving Sa-rah a double wink (like help me out a little here will you, Sarah, or we both may die). Then I told Tex that Sa-rah would give him a receipt for his gun.
“She does it for people who have poodles, possums, pigskins, or other possessions that we think would be better left out of sessions,” I said.
Well, as Tex reached for his gun, Sa-rah just stared into space, so I gave her hand motions to start writing something. Finally, she reached for a pink telephone message pad, and as Tex laid down his gun, Sa-rah handed him a pink slip of paper with these words on it:
“While you are away, this is where your gun will stay.”
Tex seemed okay with the note, and as luck would have it, we actually had a good session. He never showed up with his firearm again.
From my experience with Sa-rah and Tex that day, I learned that sometimes if you stay fluid and keep the conversation light until it needs to be heavy, you can set up the right conditions in counseling so that your encounters can be productive. Being flexible as a counselor in the midst of potential danger and difficulties means “keeping a grip” on yourself and others and not wildly “shooting from the hip” or getting hysterical. Flexibility involves timing, patience, and a sensitivity to know that most solutions in life come from interactions that are mindful but sometimes ones you would probably never have predicted.
6. Love in Colorado
It was February 14th and I had taken a late flight from my home in North Carolina to Colorado. When I arrived at my destination in Denver, I was confused. I thought I was to be met by someone from the publishing company on whose editorial board I served. Seeing no one, I waited and took in my surroundings. The airport was unfamiliar to me but finally I saw a sign of hope. It read: “Information.”
With a sense of optimism, I made my way over to a booth where a young woman stood with a red rose pinned to her lapel.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I am here for Love.”
She looked me up and down in a respectful but skeptical way. Then with a tinge of sarcasm in her voice she replied: “I’ll just bet you are!”
Startled at first, I continued: “Someone was to meet me here, I thought.”
“Maybe you should think again,” she answered. “Sometimes they just don’t show, cowboy. That’s Valentine’s Day for you.”
Then it struck me. She thought I was seeking love as in amore’, affection, passion, and pleasure. She assumed when I said “love” that I was talking about that tinkling, tangling, wonderfully exciting, head-over-heels, inviting emotion felt between two people who have become deeply and emotionally engrossed with one another on multiple levels.
“Oh no,” I countered in a somewhat embarrassed way. “You see, I’m not here for that kind of love.”
She blinked, backed off a few steps as if I might have a highly contagious disease, and somewhat hesitantly asked:
“Then what kind of love are you seeking?”
“Publishing Love. Stan Love. The Love that comes printed on paper in books, monographs, and even over the internet. It is not always goose bump exciting but the products that Mr. Love delivers last longer than most romances.”
Do you know what I’m talking about?” I questioned.
“I haven’t a clue,” she confessed, “but I hope you find love wherever it or he, or maybe even she, may be.”
With those words our conversation ended and I called a taxi to take me to Love Publishing Company.
In looking back on that Valentine’s Day and my memorable, if less than romantic and productive, conversation, I am reminded of the importance of humor and the lessons we learn from it. Often levity is the lever that helps us move from seeing life as a tragedy to experiencing life as a comedy. That perspective makes life with others not only bearable, but fulfilling and even fun.