Have you ever found yourself in a situation so outside of the norms of your daily life that you ask yourself the question posed by The Talking Heads: “Well, how did I get here?”
That song played in the back of my brain when I found myself locked inside a prison cell, face to face with a convicted murderer. He was ripped. Paranoid. Psychotic. And pissed.
As a kid I learned about the existence of psychologists by watching The Phil Donahue Show. Before Oprah, Phil was the TV host who brought guests with interesting stories before a live studio audience. He often invited a psychologist to answer audience questions. I remember thinking how knowledgeable about the human condition these psychologists seemed. That show planted the seed that would eventually grow into my desire to become a psychologist.
In psychology graduate school we learned early about the types of clients who are most amenable to talk therapy. The short-hand for these clients is YAVIS: Young, Attractive, Verbal, Intelligent and Successful.
However, psychology graduate students are typically assigned jobs working with the most extreme and difficult cases: the graveyard shift in the ER assessing the lethality of suicide attempters; managing teens with severe autism; working with veterans with debilitating PTSD; evaluating sex offenders who deny wrong-doing; trying to help prisoners who have murdered people.
You may wonder why the most inexperienced clinicians are thrown into the deep end of the pool of human suffering. The answer is probably some combination of cheap labor plus incredible opportunities to learn about varying human experiences. Some of these experiences turn into future careers. Most of them are challenging, growth-enhancing and life-changing.
They can also scare you shitless.
My first community assignment was in a maximum-security prison in Columbia, South Carolina. My first client, Darnell*, had killed his cousin and served ten years in a tiny prison cell. Even though he was eligible for parole, he repeatedly sabotaged his release by acting “crazier” whenever he was up for parole. Little did I know that my job would be to help free him from this cycle.
But the first time I found myself locked in with Darnell, I was not thinking about future therapy goals. I was trying to breathe my way through a primal Fight or Flight (well, mostly flight!) response. I also had to figure out how to accomplish Step One of the therapeutic relationship: “establish rapport.”
What did Darnell and I have in common? How in the world was I supposed to connect with, let alone help, this guy?
Click here to read Chapter 12 in Bird Gotta Land to learn how it went.
Please share an experience you had that was a million miles outside of your comfort zone…and what you learned about yourself.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality