Saturday, December 21, 2013

Dear Young Therapist: Consider Your De Rigueur Requirements | The Post-Doctoral Tie Incident

image credit: Nicholas Ruiz. Bow Tie #10. Assembled November 2011.
 Acetaminophen pills, multiple adhesives, plastic knife. Forest Hills, Queens, New York.
The man interviewing me for a postdoctoral fellowship unwrapped the aluminum foil encasing his dry turkey sandwich and proceeded to stuff it into his mouth.
"Do you mind if I eat? Not that you really have a choice. I'm doing the interview and have the power in this situation."
He continued to masticate and fill his office up with the seasonally incongruent smell of Thanksgiving. This was going to be a fun filled interview.

"I'd like to ask you why you aren't wearing a tie today for your interview. Before you answer, I want you to know that as a psychologist I think everything has a meaning. I hope you have thought about the meaning of why you didn't wear a tie. If you haven't, then you aren't what we are looking for in a post-doctoral fellow. We'll end the interview here and I'll wish you good day."

I had a variety of inside-thoughts that I considered sharing. They included:

  • Asshole. 
  • Drop dead. 
  • Who the hell do you think you are? I just had fucking brain surgery, a post-operative infection, and joint damage from an adverse reaction to the antibiotics that treated my infection. 
  • Your turkey sandwich is making me want to throw up. 
  • I'm scared because I can't find a job. 
  • Do you know who the fuck I am? 
  • Am I going to fail as a psychologist?

I took a middle course and smiled politely. I noticed the air flowing in and out of my nose. I watched as my agitated thoughts floated like clouds in the wind from the center of my awareness, to the edges of my mind, and then off into places where I can no longer notice them.

I smiled. I found my center and hit my stride. On a good day I can find this center and offer nothing for someone to grab hold of to bite. It's a survival skill that I had perfected as a teen, street youth worker, case manager, meditator, psychotherapist, and a survivor of my dysfunctional graduate school cohort.

"It's rather hot outside, Joe. Also you might notice that I'm not a particularly formal kind of person. I'm not going to advertise something in an interview that isn't true. What you see is exactly what you get."

Dr. Shay wasn't going to let me off that easily. He continued pushing question after question toward me. The force of his questions made me feel like I was being pinned against his office wall. I wanted to escape. I wanted to lash out. I wanted to assault him with my words and hands. The sounds of his voice felt like they were looking for a crack, hoping for a sign that something hurt. It feels like his words were seeking an unguarded space that would cause me to lash out when it was poked.

Instead I noticed the air passing in and out of my nose. I let his words take flight on clouds. They were becoming worrisome clouds--developing into the pea green shade that formed tornadoes in my Midwestern hometown. Foreboding or not, the clouds kept moving. I could only observe them. No fool would ever attempt to control or direct the path of a cloud. They move as they wish. 

"What's going to happen when a parent who makes millions of dollars a year doesn't take you seriously? People find that clothes mean something. Don't you think you need to dress the part so people take you seriously? If you wear what other people expect you to wear, the de rigueur uniform of a psychologist, it won't be noticed. When you don't wear a tie you are saying you want to be noticed. Do you want to be noticed? Is that important to you?"

More clouds. Getting even darker. I recall fantasizing about reaching out for his tie and strangling him with it. His words and my thoughts were forming clouds that flowed around me occluding my vision. All I had left to find my way was the sensation of the air coming in and out of my nose.

I was annoyed he was taking whatever his shit was out on me. My tenacity overtook me rather than my belligerence. I would continue to notice the air passing in and out of my nose. I would not react to his shit.

And that was it. That was the magic. I decoded the game. He was acting out something that didn't have anything to do with me as a person. His behavior had nothing to do with my qualifications. It had nothing to do with my actions. His strange interview behavior was emanating from him, not me.

There were more questions. They continued to swarm around me looking for a way under my skin. Having decoded the situation I was protected (so I thought) from the intrusive assault of his questions. I didn't know why this was the game at hand, but I knew it was a game, and knew I'd gain nothing be pushing back.

At the end of the interview Dr. Shay shook my hand and apologized for his demeanor. 

He explained I was interviewing outside the normal selection process and I couldn't be vetted like the other post-docs. Joe felt it was important to get a lot of information about how I handled myself in a little period of time, and felt the best way to do this was to give me a high pressure stress interview.

My interviewer felt he needed to see what I did when people tried to rip me apart. I was to be working primarily with teenagers who were highly suicidal, self-injurious, and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder as well as other disorders that involved emotional dysregulation. He said patients would look for my weak spots, poke, tear, and punch, until I reacted and lashed out. He wanted to see what I can handle and how I lashed out.

He did his best job of probing all around my edges looking for a soft spot. I think it might have been a more productive interview had he just asked me what me soft spots were. But hey, he was the guy with the office and the turkey sandwich. I was just an intern looking to be a post-doc.

I smiled and nodded in agreement that this was an appropriate way to gather information. After several other interviews that were increasingly odd, I was offered a post-doctoral fellowship. I proceeded to dislike Joe for the next six months and acted out in all sorts of entertaining ways. 

Joe had found a way in under my skin. The clouds lingered, invisible, off outside the edge of my perception. I was mad at how he treated me and I was silent about how I felt. It wasn't until I was about six months into my post-doc that I was able to see our training director as Uncle Joe, the kind, warm, thoughtful, and brilliant man my cohort saw him as. I was too busy thinking he was an asshole who tortured the recovering brain surgery patient who needed a job.

I started talking about the mean Joe that I met in my interview, and how that contrasted with the loving Joe everyone else seemed to know. People were flabbergasted. Their interviews were all warm, friendly, and kind. I talked with Joe about it. Told him how I felt. No longer in the role of evaluator and interviewer, he was able to apologize in a way that I could hear him and accept him.

To this day he remains high on my list of people who have deeply influenced and shaped my development as a psychologist. He's a mentor, a role model, and a very kind soul. 

Hold the turkey sandwich, please. 

The other day I was thinking about my invisible tie and all the ways we are expected to follow the de rigueur rules of society. I was thinking about all the ways in which we are torn apart if we step outside of those expectations. Even within communities that espouse a desire to hear and value myriad voices and viewpoints, the social pressures end up creating another set of de rigueur expectations that are used to evicerate their own kind who step outside orthodoxy.

It's shameful to watch believers in social justice degrade the humanity of their opponents. While there are many people who say and believe many vile things, does that give us the right to turn them into the other? Do we have the right to direct an eviscerating evil anger toward those disagree with us? How about those who think thoughts we think are terrible? What happens to us when we tear at their flesh? Feed on their soul? Who do we become when we ourselves are the angry mob that calls for the witch to be burned?

The clouds are dark and swarming around all of us. Their pervasive nature will always see to it that they find a way in. They will penetrate our defenses. They will seep into the soft spots. They will lodge themselves under our skin. They will envelop us until we are no longer ourselves. Will we notice the clouds and allow them to pass?

All I can do is notice the air coming in and out of my nose. 

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