Sunday, May 19, 2013

Personal crises

As a psychotherapist, I'm used to dealing with crises.  Crisis management is a job requirement for everyone who works in a mental health setting, from the lead psychiatrist to the people who answer the phones and schedule appointments.  In college, a significant amount of class time was devoted to this topic. 

What constitutes a crisis can differ from person to person and from setting to setting.  When I worked in a residential setting, a crisis typically involved a patient becoming physically aggressive, destroying property, engaging in self harmful behaviors, or trying to run away from the facility.  For an inpatient psychiatric hospital, the crisis is often admission to the facility itself (since people typically aren't admitted to an inpatient psychiatric hospital unless they are an immediate danger to themselves or others). 

Crises also vary in size and scope.  An individual can experience a personal crisis (for example, an "existential crisis").  Crises can also occur within a family.  Often, a problem in an individual family member impacts the entire family, creating a family crisis. 

Sometimes an event disrupts the lives of large groups of people, causing a neighborhood, state, or even national crisis.  Natural disaster is a common example of a large scale crisis.  Recall the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Between nineteen and twenty thousand people died (most from the tsunami), leaving thousands of grieving friends and relatives in their wake.  The resultant destruction left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.   Entire communities were completely destroyed.  The earthquake and tsunami also caused a nuclear power plant in Fukushima to meltdown.  Eventually, the loss of energy supplied by the plant taxed the entire nation's electricity supply.  The Japanese government was forced to look for alternative ways to meet the nation's electricity needs. 

As a psychotherapist, the crises I deal with tend to be on a smaller scale.  I think the majority of crises are small scale crises.  You might think that dealing with so many crises makes a person better at handling them.  There was a time when I was naive enough to believe this.  The truth is, when you are confronted with crises on a daily basis you become good at dealing with other people's crises.  And that's all.  I've discovered that all of my training, education, and experience mean nothing when faced with my own crisis.  This became abundantly apparent during a recent family crisis.  I was no calmer nor any better equipped to deal with what happened.  The first thing I did when I learned what had happened was to ask my mother what I should do.  That's certainly not the most competent reaction.

What stood out the most to me was how helpless I felt.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to change the situation.  There were, of course, things I could do to be there for my family.  Perhaps a bit ironically, I did not know which of these options would be comforting and which would be intrusive.  I was torn between wanting very badly to be there but also wanting to respect the privacy of a loved one who was going through a terrible experience.  

I'm not upset with myself for not knowing what to do.  I'm not sure there is ever any "right" thing to do in a crisis anyway, although there are certainly "wrong" things to do.  I've come to realize that it was naive of me to believe I would be better equipped to handle my own crisis just because I'm used to helping other people handle theirs.


  1. I have to say that your blog is one of the best blogs I've ever read! You offer a lot of insight on interesting topics that I've never even considered before and all of your posts are very thought-provoking. I just wanted to say thank you for being so thorough in your posts and for offering sound advice--they are all very helpful!

  2. The great thing about life is the daily uncertainty of it and the pitfalls that will no doubt rise up to bite us as we go about our normal business and sometimes, the further you go, the less you will know but it is a privilege to be here all the same. Is ignorance bliss? No, ignorance is unawareness. Having spent that major part of my life tending to what I thought were others wants or wishes, I find that I’m no more equipped to face the day than I was those many years ago. My achievements are minimal and my philosophy, inconsistent, yet it is a privilege to be here. One assignment had me in the huge library, a kind of hush-hush archive of delicate documents which content was of the essence. Eight years saw me operating for what I believed to be the betterment of others and it was a privilege to be there. When it was over and the place reduced to rubble, the one thing I took away from it was the image of a single huge weeping willow that imposed itself on the landscape just outside the gatehouse. It was there when I started and said farewell when I left. I will never know what good my time in that place did but I have come to realise that the only time I was truly at one with myself and the world for a scant few seconds was when that tree greeted in and guided me out. I guess my greatest achievement, therefore is knowing for a short time that all can be right for a short while when we let our guard down and let the world in. I still see that tree in my mind long after the faces and documents have faded. I guess that makes me weak and strong but I’m not sure which I prefer. I don’t know why I like the poem below either. I’ve not suffered too much in this life and folk have been kind to me in the whole but it speaks to me in a way that drills down to places that have the most authority to appreciate that to be here is a privilege. I loved your blog, this has been mine. Thank you.

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll.
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.


My Favorites