Tag Archives: Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: Invisible people, Part 1: Native Americans

By Gregory K. Moffatt March 18, 2019

The little girl sitting next to me was no more than 5. Her bony little body was draped in clothes that appeared to have been worn for several days. Unmistakably Apache, she looked up at me and smiled from her seat on the school bus in which we were riding. As is sadly common among children on the sprawling Apache reservation in Arizona, her teeth were rotted off at the gum line.

“Does your daddy hurt you?” she asked me matter-of-factly. After four years of working with these children, I was still shocked at how rampant the ills of society were among these populations. Child abuse, suicide, domestic violence, addiction, unemployment, substandard education, truancy/dropout and, yes, poor dental hygiene are just a few of the problems that are so disproportionately part of the experience of Native Americans who live on reservations.

In traveling the world, I have encountered cultures so vastly different from my own that it is hard to describe them to my friends and family members. You don’t have to leave the United States to have that experience, however. My heart breaks for the lovely people I have met — Apache, Hopi, Navajo — on reservations located within our borders.

Native Americans on reservations are among three groups that I will be addressing in a series of monthly columns on “invisible people.” One or more of these groups may be within walking distance of our counseling offices without our even knowing it.

I live in Georgia, the home of the Cherokee Nation, but many in our state have no idea that the Cherokee people are here. They know the Cherokee only from movies or perhaps because they have seen someone on the roadside in the north Georgia mountains dressed in traditional clothing and offering to pose for a photograph with tourists who are willing to pay a few dollars.

Sadly, the mention of “Cherokee Nation” likely causes many people to think of a sports mascot and not the literal nation of the Cherokee. I sometimes wonder if the average person realizes how many of our states, roads, rivers, cities and towns are named after one tribe or another or are otherwise derived from Native American words. Yet the heritage of these people gets lost in the blur of movie stereotypes, school mascots and advertising caricatures. It’s heartbreaking.

Because Native Americans are often “invisible,” so are their struggles. I suspect the typical American knows more about Middle Eastern culture than about the rich and beautiful cultural heritage of their Native American neighbors who may live only doors away. Native Americans who live on reservations are often inaccessible to those who might try to understand them, and those who live off the reservations possess a heritage that is largely misunderstood by nearly everyone.

Do you know the difference between a Seminole and a Blackfoot, an Apache and a Hopi, or a Cheyenne and a Tonkawa? Did you even know that the Karuk, Wichita, Koi and Kaw are tribes? Seeing all Native Americans as the same is as insulting as assuming that all Spanish speakers are from Mexico.

Misunderstandings abound. For example, for some tribes, feathers are indeed a part of the honor of a headdress. What you probably don’t know is that many tribes would never use a feather as decoration because it is part of what is dead, and that is sacred — not to be worn as jewelry or adornment.

It is next to impossible for tribes to perpetuate their traditions, religions, languages and cultural values as a subset of mainstream American culture. So, they are relegated either to abandoning these things or to moving onto a reservation, where life options for themselves and their children are significantly limited. What a bitter choice to make.

But even in 2019, in a culture in which we have removed cartoons such as the “Frito Bandito” from advertising, some Native Americans are still forced to look at caricatures of themselves in sports team mascots and advertising. If you think that I’m being overly dramatic, watch the documentary In Whose Honor. Only a cold-hearted viewer would not be moved.

I worked for years with Apache and Navajo parents, teens and children on a reservation, but in general, most of them never grew to trust me. I was a white man, so there was no reasonable cause for them to trust me. As we have all been taught in other arenas, distrust is to be expected when you represent the population in power. I have found that it is sometimes easier these days to practice with other minority groups, but not so much with Native Americans.

Unless you have gone out of your way to learn about Native Americans, my guess is that this article has opened some eyes. We pride ourselves on cultural diversity as counselors, but I’m not confident that the blinders we wear allow us to really see how much we don’t see — at least when it comes to the three groups of “invisible people” I am addressing in this series. I hope this first column on invisible people will open counselors’ eyes to what we might be missing.

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Voice of Experience: Facing death

By Gregory K. Moffatt February 25, 2019

As soon as the sheet of metal roofing hit the back of my leg, I knew I was in trouble. Working on my timber farm, I was repairing a roof when the piece of metal slipped and slashed across my calf. I looked down, knowing what I would see.

My left leg was severed nearly in half and blood was gushing from the wound. I sat down, stripped off my sweatshirt and wrapped the fragments of my leg as tightly as I could. Even though this took only a matter of seconds, the ground beneath me was already a pool of red.

I dug my cellphone from my pocket and called 911, explaining the situation and giving my location, which was far from any main road. The operator said someone was on the way and hung up. After that, the wind through the trees and my breathing were the only sounds I could hear.

I knew it would be a while before anyone could find me so far from anywhere. Watching the flow of red soaking through my makeshift tourniquet, I wondered if I was bleeding to death and tightened it even harder.

For those first few minutes, I questioned whether I would survive. “Maybe this is it,” I thought. But it wasn’t like you might think. I was surprised at how calm and at peace I was.

At first, I thought, “I have so much I still want to do.” But, immediately, I realized a day would never pass when I didn’t think that way. Almost with a shrug, I started thinking that everyone has to die sometime, and even though I hadn’t planned on it being that day, I supposed it was as good as any other. Huh … the end. Strangely peaceful.

Sitting there for almost an hour on the cold, muddy ground, gray skies above me and misty rain beginning to fall, I was at peace. I called my wife to say goodbye, but there was no answer. So, cold as it might seem, a voice message had to do.

My life didn’t flash before my eyes and I didn’t feel any remorse, other than knowing that my family would be devastated. Despite the intense pain, I was totally lucid — no shock or dizziness. I monitored my breathing, sensed my blood pressure, checked my toes for movement and sensation, and listened to the wind, wondering if help would arrive before I expired.

As counselors, we often are faced with helping people manage life’s problems in the context of their weak and crumbling self-perceptions. One’s sense of self — or internal well-being, you might say — is the bedrock (or sand) on which the weight of life’s difficulties rest. That day, I came face to face with who I am at my core.

I love the outdoors, and if that had been my last day, it would have been OK. I would have died in a place that I love knowing I had done all I could to save myself.

The point of this story isn’t to milk readers’ emotions or to create cheap melodrama. The point is that I’m grateful to have another chance at life, but I’m equally gratified not to have found myself facing death with sadness and regrets. I’ve lived a good life, and despite my failings and imperfections, I know my existence has made a difference in people’s lives.

My work has influenced thousands of students, thousands of readers and hundreds of audiences, clients and clinicians. I think that, overall, I have left the world a better place than when I arrived in it, and maybe that is what it is all about. I’m OK with who I have become and how I have spent my days. Maybe that is as good as it gets.

I’m not sure exactly how I arrived at this place in life but, frankly, I think a lifetime of mistakes and struggles have helped me to develop resilience and comfort in my own skin. Isn’t it peculiar that the things we wish to avoid — pain, loss, difficulty — are the very things that help foster strength? This very painful event will itself make me a stronger and better person.

Obviously, I didn’t bleed to death. Beyond that, I didn’t lose my leg. Long months of recovery are still ahead of me, but I’m grateful that walking again is in my future.

Knowing our defects and failings as counselors, many of us struggle to live with ourselves, just like our clients do. I suppose what I’m hoping is that you too can find a place where you are OK with the end, no matter how many years away that might be. That strength is the firm foundation we need to manage the curveballs that life throws at us, thus making us better helpers for our clients.

I was tested by facing death, and it has shown me that I can live with myself. No “what ifs” or “if onlys.” Of all my accomplishments in life, that kind of peace may be the most significant.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Voice of Experience: Facing the wind

By Gregory K. Moffatt January 22, 2019

Sofia’s clothes were stylish and neatly pressed, and her jet-black hair was immaculate. Cropped short, not a strand was out of place. Subtle makeup highlighted her athletic features and youthful appearance, making her look much younger than she actually was.

Only by looking closely could I see a hint of red in her eyes. She had cried on the way to our appointment. Not surprising. Her life as she had known it was over.

Just two months before, Sofia (not her real name) had been a typical wife of a dozen or so years and the mother of two grade-school children. Aside from her stunning beauty, she could have been any one of a hundred other mothers in a car-rider pickup line or wandering the aisles of the grocery store. The life she shared with her husband consisted of packing school lunches, shuttling children and their playmates to soccer practice, managing their suburban home and running a small real estate business.

But all of that changed in a heartbeat. One careless decision led to a fleeting affair, which Sofia confessed to her husband, and their marriage was over. He couldn’t bring himself to forgive her, so she agreed to move out. Sofia was living in a small garage apartment belonging to a friend and saw her children for only a few hours on Saturdays.

Sofia was consumed with grief and, although you couldn’t tell by looking at her, every day she could scarcely get out of bed. The burden of her sadness was so heavy that, as I got better acquainted with Sofia, I could almost see her regrets weighing on her shoulders.

This isn’t a novel tale. Any of you reading this could undoubtedly identify many faces from your own client files, male or female, that would easily slip into the general details I’ve just laid out. After all, one of the main reasons people come to see us is because they’re facing the pains of life.

But one thing set Sofia apart from all of my other clients over the years. She taught me a lesson that has not only made me a better therapist, but has also helped me to manage my own depression as it has waxed and waned through the decades.

As much pain as she carried, Sofia forced herself daily to get out of bed and face the day, regardless of the tempest that was her life in the moment. Please don’t mistake my details of her appearance as misogynistic. My intent is simply to be descriptive of how much energy she spent preparing for the business of the day.

Anyone who has worked with grieving clients, clients experiencing major depressive disorder or similar diagnoses knows that failure to attend to personal hygiene is common. I have had clients come to sessions without showering, with their hair not having seen a comb or a brush in days, and still wearing a food-stained sweatshirt-and-sweatpants combo that doubled as their pajamas.

Not Sofia. Yet her appearance wasn’t an expression of vanity. It was one of professionalism and determination. She took full responsibility for her role in the dissolution of her marriage, but she refused to wallow in regret. In the most healthy way, she said to me more than once, “It is my fault, I am devastated, and I’m so sorry, but I will rebuild my life.” And she did.

Sofia’s appearance was an apt metaphor for a philosophy that said, “I will not be defeated.” And it worked for her.

In those early days of her new life, Sofia awoke each morning to face a strong headwind, but she plodded forward. Over the course of her recovery, the gale weakened into occasional gusts and, eventually, manageable breezes. All the while, the hole in her heart also began to heal.

As I’ve helped other clients work through life’s difficulties, I’ve recounted Sofia’s story numerous times. Even when she didn’t feel like it — even when it seemed her life was over — she got up, faced the day and conducted the business of life. What a powerful example.

Our final appointment was very brief. The cost of therapy was part of Sofia’s decision to terminate, but not the biggest reason. She explained that her days were getting easier and, just 15 minutes into the session, she thanked me and said, “I think I will be OK.” I couldn’t argue with her. As the door closed behind her, I knew she possessed the skills she needed to continue her recovery.

I was a very new therapist in those days, and I sometimes wonder which of us got the better deal. I doubt Sofia remembers me, but because of the lesson of courage she demonstrated, I’ll never forget her.

 

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Voice of Experience: Avoiding boundary violations

By Gregory K. Moffatt December 17, 2018

Boundary violations happen in two general ways — a momentary bad decision or a long series of bad decisions that leads to a huge error. Here are examples of each.

A clinician friend attended a client’s graduation party. She had worked with this client for months as he dealt with the ending of his marriage, the loss of his 20-year career and the decision to go back to college to begin a new life.

The graduation party was a celebration of the long road they had traveled together as clinician and client. But the decision to attend was a mistake. It was a small party made up almost exclusively of relatives. Even though my friend stayed only a short time, the client introduced her as someone who had helped him through hard times. Subsequently, she was met with questions about her relationship with the client, whether they were dating and other awkward speculations.

Because of the way he introduced her, my friend could not clarify her relationship with the client. Her decision to attend the party was made with the best of intentions but clearly violated the client-counselor boundary. It is a mistake that she won’t make again.

The second type of boundary violation happens over time. Consider this scenario: “Bob” was a marriage and family therapist in his 40s who had been divorced for a little more than a year. His client, “Mary,” was a 40-something woman working through her own divorce.

Bob tried to ignore his subtle attraction to Mary, dismissing it as nothing that would lead to unethical behavior. She was his last client of the day and, eventually, he began allowing their sessions to run 10 or 15 minutes over the allotted time. Bob rationalized that he didn’t have to be in a hurry. After all, no other clients were waiting, and he had no place to be.

Bob also allowed the dialogue at the end of sessions to wander into questionable areas — his hobbies, movies that Mary liked, favorite restaurants. In the process, Bob discovered that he and Mary shared the same favorite restaurant.

After their first session, Bob allowed Mary to give him a “shoulder hug” at the conclusion of therapy — a behavior that became routine. Again, he rationalized this action as harmless. Mary initiated it, and he didn’t intend anything further to happen. He told himself that he had been in practice for many years and had never had an attraction to a client that he had acted on.

Then came the gross boundary violation. At the conclusion of a session, Bob and Mary lingered in the office for nearly 30 minutes, chatting like friends rather than therapist and client. Mary mentioned she was hungry and suggested that they go to their favorite restaurant and continue their conversation over dinner. Bob agreed.

At dinner, long gazes and awkward pauses made it evident that there were feelings between the two. Immediately following dinner, Bob called me, asking how to pull the reins back on their relationship.

Bob didn’t make one mistake. He made many mistakes that led to the most obvious one. Fortunately, he and Mary didn’t end up in a sexual relationship, but the boundaries of their clinical relationship had become so blurred that he chose to refer Mary to another therapist. This was a devastating setback to her. She had again been rejected by a man she cared about, even though Bob never intended that to happen.

Bob failed to recognized how his physical contact might be interpreted by his client. He ignored, rationalized and routinely failed to maintain clear time boundaries that help to clarify the therapist-client relationship. In addition, he failed to manage his attraction to Mary.

In Mary’s eyes, Bob was her friend, not her therapist, and over time, that gave her the green light to ask him to dinner. Accepting the invitation was just the last of Bob’s long series of errors.

My internship supervisor was an exceptional model of boundaries. She cared about me and wanted me to succeed, but there is no way I would ever have supposed that her concern for me was anything more than clinical. She was warm, friendly and gracious, but I laugh at the idea that I would have ever asked her to dinner. No way. She made our roles clear.

So, whether you have windows or no widows in your office door, whether you touch your clients or do not touch them, or whether you attend or refuse to attend a function such as a client’s graduation isn’t the issue. The issue is the clarity of boundaries and ethical behavior.

Our best insurance is integrity. I have worked very hard over my career to build a professional reputation that is so solid that any accusation would be met with, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

If Bob had done that, Mary would never have asked him to dinner.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Voice of Experience: Know everything

By Gregory K. Moffatt November 19, 2018

If you want to be a good counselor, know everything. Did I get your attention? I don’t really expect counselors to know everything, but I use this simple phrase to make a point.

Remember how exciting it was when you finished your graduate work? No more tests, no more papers and no more assignments. When I finished my Ph.D., I reveled in the liberation of being able to read something because it interested me as opposed to plodding through some article or book chapter and wondering what my professor was going to ask about on a test.

I see that excitement in my students as they approach graduation. Some of them even tell me how they will never be a student again. In other words, they’re done with formal education.

I loved graduate school, but I understand those who don’t enjoy the academic regimen. Nothing shameful there. However, there is something ethically problematic if a clinician thinks that learning ends with the awarding of the sheepskin at commencement or even receipt of a license to practice professionally.

I often hear a troubling tone from colleagues regarding their continuing education requirements. In Georgia where I practice, we are required a minimum of 35 hours every two years. Sometimes people speak of these hours as if they are boxes to check off as opposed to a process that helps us improve our skills.

Continuing education isn’t something that you have to do for your license. It is something you must do to remain competent.

Your required hours for license renewal are what your state has determined is a minimum. I don’t want to be minimal. In my previous license renewal cycle, I had almost 60 CEU hours — nearly double the required minimum. One of my colleagues had even more. She was audited a few years ago and had more than 200 hours of continuing education over her two-year cycle.

Learning must continue for multiple reasons. Our ethical responsibility and professionalism are just two.

My continuing education isn’t limited to CEU hours. I have a passion for reading. For many years, I have made it a practice to read at least 25 books per year. Along with books in the counseling field, I also read at least one biography, one history book, one book on mathematics or physics, one book on chemistry or medicine, and one or two just for entertainment (I’m a Stephen King fan, if you’re curious).

A few different times, I have committed to and succeeded at reading a book a week for the whole year. I also read all of the journals from my professional organizations, plus kept up on the news each day.

I have an amazing luxury as a college professor. I am surrounded by scholars — among the best in their academic fields. Our university offers dozens of majors, and I regularly go to my friends in other disciplines and ask, “What should I be reading in your area?” Whether it is literature, history, business, psychology, social work or some other area, I am never disappointed at their suggestions. In fact, I’m disappointed only if they don’t have any.

Reading helps me relate to varied fields of study, professions and pop culture. This reading habit probably sounds boring to some of you. Again, it is OK if you don’t like to read, but at a minimum, you must stay abreast of your field in some way.

But learning brings more than that. With every news story I follow, every volunteer experience I have, every foreign country I visit and, yes, every book I read, I become a better counselor. I even use social events to learn. Instead of talking about myself, I ask about others. What is your career? What is most exciting or interesting in your life experience? I’m always thinking, “What can you teach me?”

Knowing something about everything helps us understand our clients. Even our jobs can teach us. I’ve had so many jobs in my past that I can’t name them all, but to list a few, I’ve been a truck driver, a coal miner, a painter, a carpenter, an electrician, a telephone operator, a teacher, a radio host, a restaurant worker, a bulldozer driver, a landscaper, and the list goes on. These experiences help me to understand the worlds in which my clients live.

So, I encourage you to be a learner. Know everything, even if you don’t pursue it the way I do. You will be a better counselor for it.

 

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If you are interested in some of my favorite books, you can find a reading list organized by category on my website (click on “Resources”) at gregmoffatt.com.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.