A bit of background in case you’ve stumbled upon this post by chance. About a month ago I decided it would be “fun”? to capture my life story in 59 days (from August 22 to October 20). You can learn more about that here. After a week’s hiatus which has gotten me seriously behind schedule, I am back on task and looking forward to a rainy weekend to catch up. Today’s post recalls my first job after college, which I started just before I turned 23.
On my own for the first time – in a new city and a very big city at that. I lived in Baltimore Maryland from September 1978 until May 1980. As the outpatient Child Life Specialist at Baltimore City Hospital on Eastern Avenue (now Bayview Hospital) I provided parent education to low income parents – “modeling” good parenting skills while they waited for their pediatrician appointment. I observed parent child interactions and shared my assessments with the pediatricians in the clinic.
There four other women named Cathy or Kathy in the clinic where I worked so when I started my job in Baltimore I became Kalen. New city, new job – seemed like the right time for a new name. Kathy sounded too young, Kathleen sounded too old, and Kalen was just right – it still is. I liked the people I worked with. I had lots of girlfriends who were also single and we had fun together – dinners out, ski trips, camping and hiking, white water rafting and baseball games. I became a huge Baltimore Orioles fan and still remember my favorite players – Rick Dempsey, Scotty McGregor, Doug DeCinces and Earl Weaver the manager. In 1979, the Orioles were in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Pirates 4 – Orioles 3)
In the first year of my job, the department started a new program to assist with the intake of children who were victims of alleged sexual abuse. The police brought the alleged victim to City Hospital for an examination when sexual abuse was reported. My role was to gather information from the child about what had happened. It was important to be objective and to get the child’s version of events without “suggesting” anything to the child. I also explained the upcoming medical procedure and sometimes stayed with the child during the exam.
Explaining medical procedures and dealing with emotionally distressed children was part of my job so that was not difficult but the stories were heartbreaking. Our program was created to provide an advocate for the child, a safe familiar person who was the one constant figure for the child throughout the entire process related to the alleged sexual abuse – from the intake interview and exam to the court proceedings, which were several months later. The court proceedings often created more emotional trauma for the child than the steps leading up to them. Frequently by the time the case went to trial, the mother had reconciled with the alleged abuser (often the mother’s boyfriend) and they put incredible pressure on the child to change her story. Truly a no-win situation for the child, especially when it was likely the abuse had occurred.
It’s odd to look back on this time in my life because I have absolutely no desire to do anything like that again. I remember people saying – “Oh that must be so hard – how can you stand it?” But when I was the play therapist on call, it was just part of my job. I couldn’t be effective if I let my feelings get in the way. It was important to remain objective and mindful that not all allegations of sexual abuse were true. Starting a new program that linked the medical and the legal aspects of the process, rekindled my interest in law. (If you’re just joining this story of my life, I should mention that I considered being a lawyer at several points in my life but had opted for a career in play therapy instead.)
I wrote my first professional paper and presented it at a multi-disciplinary conference for Sexual Abuse Prevention held in Washington DC in 1979. I described the role of the play therapist in the intake process – how to take a child’s story without putting words in their mouth. How to be objective but supportive. How to assess the child’s veracity. I submitted the paper to the ACCH (Association for the Care of Children in Hospitals) and was selected to present at the national conference in Dallas in July 1980. I was pleased that my career choice provided a good combination of intellectual challenge and contact with children. I was using my brain and my heart. I liked that my work made a difference in people’s lives but the need to remain objective and to stifle my emotional reaction to very sad circumstances began to take a toll on my own mental health. I was stressed out and depressed.
When the lease on my apartment in a suburb on the east side of Baltimore ended in 1979, I moved into a house in the center of town with a couple of medical students. It was more centrally located and I began to do more social things in Baltimore. I had always loved blue grass music and thought it would be fun to learn to play the banjo. I bought a banjo and took lessons but without much success. It was the height of the women’s rights movement (at least it felt like the height to me) and I attended programs at the Baltimore Women’s Resource Center with my friend, Barbara, who was going through a divorce. We met each other at the right time in our lives since we were both struggling to become “independent” women; women whose happiness and self-worth did not depend on being in a relationship. My on-again off-again relationship with Boyfriend #2, which lasted about 18 months longer than it should have (hindsight is a wonderful thing) was officially off by the summer of 1979.
In March of 1980, perhaps empowered by an awareness that I was responsible for creating my happiness, and perhaps because I was so depressed that I could barely stand to go to work every day, I did what everyone will tell you never to do – I quit my job without having a new job lined up. I was so miserable that I didn’t care what I did instead – I had to get out.
I got a job in a bookstore (I’ve always loved libraries and bookstores – especially independent bookstores) and made enough money to get by for a while. By the summer of 1980 I moved home to Richmond and lived with Nana, my maternal grandmother. My mother had remarried in May 1979 and she and Tony were living in Rochester, New York. My father had gotten a job in a small town in the eastern part of Virginia. Nana had always been my source of comfort and strength and despite how independent I had become, it was nice to be with her again – even if it meant wearing a navy blue “sailor-style” uniform and working as a hostess at a family style seafood restaurant – coming home every night reeking of fish oil.
Sometimes you learn what you want to do by doing those things you don’t want to do.