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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Terms of Basic Instinct

I was a contractual therapist with a church-affiliated non-profit agency, and they had dispatched me to an office in a church on the edge of the city. "Office" is a generous label; I suspect if I had not been there, they would have been using it as a utility closet. It was winter and since I worked evening hours, the place had been dark and deserted long before I arrived for my "shift." There was a "security" man (I use the term loosely; he was the brain-damaged relative of a church member, and he used to look me up and down, seemingly assessing whether I was fit to be in his church; if I were thoroughly covered up, he would nod; if I wore less than a turtleneck and long skirt, he would smirk and shake his head) who prowled the perimeter of the building and grounds, but he did nothing to add to my sense of security. It was a creepy place to be, alone at night.

The agency that employed me had an undergrad psychology student to do telephone "intakes," meaning that he screened the clients I would be seeing. He asked about things like chronic mental illness, suicidality, substance abuse. Because this interviewer did the intake questions and the scheduling, I would welcome new clients into my office/closet without ever having had even telephone contact with them.

On this particular evening, I opened the door to see a clean-cut, casually dressed man, in his mid-twenties. His name was Guy. He didn't look me in the eye, even when he shook my hand. This, and something about his aura of fearfulness and extraordinary strength, made me uneasy. He wasn't very tall, but portrayed a large presence due to his musculature. Very thick, roped body type. And short, very curly brown hair, which I suppose pushed my "aw, a cute little boy" button. That's probably the only thing that made me feel comfortable enough to bring him in and shut the door. And maybe that was also the thing that made me overlook (until he sat down and took great pains to position it) the large, heavy gym bag he carried in his left hand.

It could hold a gun. Or knives. Rope. No, duct tape. And chloroform.

I began with the initial interview and assessment, as Guy's eyes avoided mine, instead casting furtively all around the little room. He was depressed because he was having trouble with his live-in girlfriend. She had many complaints about him and was threatening to throw him out. They had a child together, a toddler. He showed me a picture of his daughter, and for the first time, he looked right at me, to see my reaction. She was gorgeous, indeed, and I told him so, and he blushed, then put his head back down. He continued talking about his depression and life at home. And I tried to stop looking at the gym bag. We agreed to work together, seeing each other once a week.

I saw Guy and his gym bag for only about four weeks. When he would get angry while talking about his girlfriend, the veins in his neck would stand out and he'd clench his fists, in ways that made me glance at the gym bag, which I sometimes forgot about as I got to know him better. His love relationship continued to deteriorate, and it became clear that he would need to move out of their apartment. He decided to go to a neighboring state where he could find work and where he had some relatives. I was sad to end our time together; I had come to care for him, and he was making progress in therapy. At that last session, I finally said to him, "Guy . . . what do you have in that gym bag?"

He blushed only slightly and said, "My dirty clothes. I work construction, and I come here right after work. I thought it would be disrespectful to come here all dirty, so I stop in the gas station down the street and wash up and put on clean clothes."

I felt about this big. Here I had been thinking that this sweet, vulnerable man-child was possibly capable of harming me, indeed that he may have been coming to our sessions armed and dangerous. And instead, he was being astonishingly considerate and respectful of me. Shame on me.

Then we continued our "termination" session. At the very end, I said to him, "Will you be seeing your mother when you move back to Pennsylvania?" I knew they weren't close.

"No. Ever since what happened with my step-dad, she doesn't want anything to do with me."

We had only focused on the here-and-now during our brief association, so of course I had to ask what had happened.

"I beat him to death with a baseball bat." In the remaining few minutes that we had, Guy elaborated only enough to say that he had been in prison for five years for that crime. I don't remember much else of what was said in those last few minutes as I shook his hand and wished him well.

The next day I called the intake worker, David, and suggested a change to the initial phone interview. "Hey, David," I said, real friendly-like, "I want you to add a question to the intake form" (I could almost see this eager, conscientious, wannabe therapist on the other end of the phone line, preparing to write down my suggestion verbatim). "I want you to add DID YOU EVER MURDER ANYONE WITH A FREAKIN' BASEBALL BAT?!" I told him the story, he apologized profusely . . . No harm was done. But I would have liked to have known that.

Years later, in my private practice, I decided that I won't meet male clients alone for the first time at night when there aren't other people around. Sometimes that means I can't accept a particular client. Oh, well. They can take time off, or come in before work, or whatever, if they're that motivated to see me. After I get a sense of them, usually just a session or two, I will give them an evening appointment if that's more convenient.

And of course, I don't ask someone who calls for the initial appointment, if they've ever murdered someone with a baseball bat. I just casually go down my list of innocuous intake questions, and somewhere between "on any medications?" and "any known allergies?" I ask, "Ever had any trouble with the law?" That should cover it.

file under: &Work &Can't Make This Stuff Up

27 heads are better than one . . .

Blogger Mr. Bloggerific Himself said...

Oh man, some of the stories I could tell from the days in the psych hospital. Interesting it t'was.

 
Blogger Susie said...

mrB, what were y'in fer? ;)

 

oh my goodness...I don't even know what to say to this...the lives that people lead!

 
Anonymous LadyBug said...

Oh MY. You are very brave indeed, Miss Susie.

 
Blogger Mr. Bloggerific Himself said...

I was in there fer a paycheck but I ended up getting stuck with extra shifts and some crap called "personal growth". Try and cash that "personal growth" stuff in at a bank. Yeah, that's real fun.

 
Blogger Erin said...

You know if you had an intake question that asked about beating someone to death with a baseball bat, you would get the person passed on to you that DIDN'T beat someone to death with a baseball bat, but hacked someone up with a carving knife. Because, they didn't beat them to death with a baseball bat.

Or maybe that's just my twisted mind.

It's interesting that when you first met the man, your instinct told you to be cautious. Oprah would get a big charge out of that gut feeling you had that turned out to be correct.

I agree with Ladybug, you are a brave lady. But I think your change in policy about not meeting male clients alone at night was a good one. There's flexibility for patients and then there's not getting beaten to death with a baseball bat.

 
Blogger Squirl said...

Mr B, sounds like you might need a little therapy there, ;)

Susie, I would've been petrified at that moment. I always try to see the best in people, but that would've sent right on into paranoia immediately.

So glad he didn't have a problem with you. :)

Hmm, word ver is fnpgnuy Does that mean he was a fun Guy? fungi?

 
Blogger Von Krankipantzen said...

Holy doodle! I am with Erin with the whole gut instinct thing. It really does work! I sometimes forget how potentially dangerous it is working in your field.

 
Blogger Mr. Bloggerific Himself said...

More than a little therapy. I needs me some 7 kindsa therapy and a little Rocky Road thrown in for good measure.

 
Anonymous M&Co. said...

One time when I was prepping a client for his deposition, one of my standard questions was "have you ever been convicted of a felony?" He assured me he hadn't. In the middle of the deposition, when the lawyer on the other side asked the same damn question exactly like I'd asked it, the client suddenly looked at the ceiling for a moment, paused and said, "well, I'm not sure whether it was a felony." When the lawyer on the other side asked the client to elaborate, he said, "well, I stabbed a guy once with a sword. Long pause here. But he didn't die."

I agree about not meeting clients alone especially for the first time. Makes it kind of tough sometimes but usually works out.

 
Blogger Circus Kelli said...

Wowzer. I'll take my little glorified secretary job, thankyouverymuch.

 
Blogger Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Ah, Susie, the facilities that they give us! I once worked as a social worker, supervisor no less, from an office that had literally been a closet before I came.

It seems that your intuition was correct about David, although it took a while to confirm it.

 
Anonymous platypus said...

Hmmm, sounds like you really did have the right instincts first time! Great post though - I don't know how you do it. :)

 
Blogger lawyerchik said...

GAAAAAHHHHHH! That will make a great scene in your new screen play, though, right?

My mom used to work in the state prison as a nurse, though, and she always said that most of the ones who were in there for murder were actually decent people that just got pushed too far. She used to say she would trust them more than those who were in prison for drugs. Go figure.....

 
Blogger Susie said...

htgt, yes . . . some even live in a pineapple under the sea :)

ladybug, not so much, really.

mrB, yea, who needs personal growth? (Hey, wait a minute; isn't that what all those spam emails are for?)

erin, you have me thinking about what I might have done differently if I'd known . . . I definitely wouldn't have been there alone . . . I might not even have agreed to see him, I'm sorry to say. Just don't know.

squirl, it was very um . . . jarring is the word that comes to mind. That's a pretty brutal crime. I am glad that he never got angry with me, in that short time.

kranki, I sometimes forget, too. Overall, it's safe; but when things go wrong, they can go very wrong very quickly.

mrB, rocky road? Will you share?

m, ohmygosh. A sword. But you know, if he didn't DIE . . .

ck, your job isn't little, it's big; and you deserve all the glory you get and much more.

ssnick, yes, C@thol!c Charities put me in some very in-ter-est-ing places, lemme tell ya.

platy, I, like most, only get into trouble when I shush my instincts instead of listening to them.

lawyerchik, it really would play rather well visually :) And I agree with your mom. My Guy . . . I don't know what happened, but considering the nature of the crime, and the time that he got, I would say that the step-father was abusive and Guy, who was basically a good Guy, snapped. I think we all have our breaking points. Drug dealers (not talking addicts only) are more opportunistic, more treacherous, in a way. Maybe that's where your mom is coming from.

 

Yep, yep...and it's mighty fine livin'. Except for the nematodes.

 
Blogger eclectic said...

Eeeep! The institutional lawyer in me is screaming about the potential liability exposure the church-affiliated agency had in placing you in that situation.

But as for your personal safety on the job, OK honey, your gender-bias is showing now. It's not just males who commit violent crime, though I'll grant you the odds are in their favor, so to speak. Be careful out there, eh? Although, truth be told, you're tough enough to beat the crap outta WTF, so anyone dumb enough to take you on deserves whatever they get. ;)

 
Blogger OldHorsetailSnake said...

Wow! Great story, Susie. I sure hope you're being well-paid. (Probably not, but it's nice to hope so.)

 
Blogger WILLIAM said...

I just love the stoires you have about your old clients.

 
Anonymous dawn said...

OMG, that's um, wow. See, show's how much I know. I didn't even know you had to go through a screening. of course it makes sense to, though. that's scary stuff to be thinking about.

 
Blogger Traci said...

holy f...ummm OMG! That is an amazing and terrifying story. Oy.

 
Blogger Lynn said...

Oh, boy. What to say... He beat someone to death with a baseball bat? Of course that made you nervous! I wonder what my shrink would think if he could read my blog...

 
Blogger The other me said...

Yikes, at least he had good manners though, always makes such a difference......also, I was just as scared about the 'security' guy, you described him so beautifully!

 
Blogger Nina said...

There are indeed good reasons for working with children. Well except for a few parents. The added intake question is a good one.

 
Blogger Effie said...

I think just not making first appts at all in the evenings, when you're alone, is a good practice. I admit that would have totally freaked me out. Would it have changed your perspective/comments/treatment suggestions on what he was talking with you about, had you known of his murdering tendencies prior? That's the real question...

This would be a good blog post idea "Explain the most interesting/life-threatening job you've had"....

I once worked somewhere for people with acquired brain injuries and they were trying to rehab in order to go about their regular day-to-day lives again...there's some stories I'd LOVE to tell, but they made us sign some confidentiality stuff saying we'd never divulge info, etc...it was a very challenging job--emotionally and physically--working with adult males in every area of daily life (including eating and personal care) and really, I loved the job but the pay was not enough to cover the gas it took to get there every day...
um, yeah, today is my day of tangents...

 
Blogger SassyFemme said...

Oh my gosh, you are far more brave than I ever could be! I get scared just walking out of work after dark, and I work in safe little suburbia town!

 
Blogger Susie said...

htgt, yea, I don't work with nematodes :0

eclectic, in 18 years (cheez, I'm old) of doing this, I've never felt physically threatened by a female. Psychologically threatened (there are long stories there), yes, but not in physical danger. I stand by my gender bias there.

hoss, your probably not is right. In theory, it's a lucrative profession, but the way I do it, it's more like, "OK, how much CAN you afford?"

william, I know. I hope I can get my ass back to work and gather more stories for years to come ;)

dawn, yea, it's just that not every therapist is a good fit for every client. That's the first goal of screening, to make sure it's a reasonable match. Safety is part of that, too.

traci, I almost said I got a million of them. But I only have one murderer . . . unless . . . I have another story I'll tell some day ;)

lynn, I want to say, I wish your shrink DID read your blog. Except I don't think that's appropriate. But I do wish you'd print out what you write on your blog and take it to him. I really do.

t.o.m., I like a polite murderer, too ;) No, he was a sweet kid who had a lot of baggage, no pun intended. Well, OK, pun intended. And you are right; that security guy was scary nuts.

nina, yea; and it's terribly sad when the children turn out to be dangerous, which we see more and more :(

effie, I don't know what I would have done if I'd known ahead of time. I probably would have tried to not see him. DEFINITELY would have done it in a different time and/or different, less isolated setting.

sassyfemme, I'm really not all that brave. I have good guardian angels, though :) So far.

 


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