Tuesday, March 23, 2021

34. Helping Others Feels Good (or "Grab A Shovel")

Yesterday's lesson was about finding the Helpers in your life.  Today's is about learning how to become a Helper in your life.  

Throughout my entire fifty years I have found comfort and purpose by being of service.  Helping others has always been a way of helping myself. Exactly what form it takes has varied a lot over the past five decades.  As a small child I found great satisfaction contributing to my father’s city council campaigns.  I may have only been licking envelopes or folding letters, but I liked knowing that I had done something important to help the cause.  In high school I was often the one other kids would come to with support for their problems, and it felt good to support other teens struggling. 

In college I began volunteering for HIV prevention organizations, combating homophobia programs, and creating a social group for LGBTQ students called “The Porter Lavender Network.”  My greatest success was when I booked the legendary Bettina Aptheker to attend a ‘fireside chat’ with the queer students of Porter College in 1993 just weeks before graduation.  I clearly remember asking her, “Bettina, there are SO many causes that need attention.  How do we know what to do once we leave here?”  Her response: “Damon, there is always going to be a lot of pain and suffering in this world.  There is always going to be an overwhelming pile of shit that needs shoveling.  It doesn’t matter where you start.  Just grab a shovel and start digging.”  Okay! 

Pursuing therapy seemed like the most natural way to channel this intention. Unfortunately, many sectors of American Psychology discourage practitioners from speaking out, acting up, fighting loudly for important causes, taking political positions, and speaking openly about sex and pleasure.  It took awhile but I eventually found my professional voice in the mid-00s by practicing a mix of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), Social Justice Therapy, and Narrative Family Therapy.  I remain critical of therapists today who claim to “help” but refuse to do anything to change the structures that create and perpetuate systemic suffering. 

By 2020 I had found a rewarding and sustainable mix of working in my therapy office in Manhattan while volunteering hours teaching and educating about PrEP in the Facebook “PrEP Facts” group and speaking at conferences around the world.  It often felt like keeping many plates spinning at once, but I found it deeply satisfying to engage with my community on so many levels. 

And then COVID19 hit.

By March 16, 2020, everything came to a grinding halt.  New York City was shut down.  No more clients were coming to my office.  All my PrEP gigs were cancelled.  People didn’t want to talk about PrEP or sexuality in the Facebook group.  All my typical coping mechanisms  -- work, service, planning events, quickly vanished. 

The first thing I did was take a pause.  I did not know if I had COVID19, I did not know if I could give it to others, I did not know if I was going to get sick.  I took two weeks to stop, wait, see what was going to happen to my health, see if this scary new virus would pass through in a few weeks as originally predicted.

Thankfully I never got sick.  But I did feel lost.  I didn't know what to do with myself, I didn't know what was going to happen next.  Bettina's words rang in mind, “It doesn’t matter where you start, just grab a shovel and start digging.”  Okay! 

My friend Dr. Gal Mayer inspired me by volunteering for New York State Medical Reserve Corps where he got assigned to work at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn.  That sounded like a good idea, but they didn’t want or need volunteers without medical training.  They did, however, want and need pizza.  So when Gal let me know the schedule, I offered to help get the workers pizza to deal with the COVID19 crisis.  Just having a reason to get up, get moving, and deliver pizzas to hospital workers offered incredible reassurance when all other means of helping were suspended. 

Clearly the virus wasn’t going away.  So I started doing something I had reluctantly put off:  offer online therapy.  Mental health by Zoom had rarely been an option I had given my clients before,  I had only done it before in emergencies or crises.  COVID19 certainly qualified as both.  I reached out to clients, resumed sessions online, and that started to help me feel grounded again.  Much to my surprise, I quickly became comfortable with the format and now accept that now I will be practicing this way for the rest of my career. 

In August I saw an ad on Facebook looking for volunteers to receive an experimental COVID vaccine in a research trial.  “Why not,” I thought.  I had already been injected with an experimental HIV vaccine in 2006-2007, and that turned out to be a deeply rewarding experience.  Maybe this would be the same?  I submitted my questionnaire online, and...heard nothing. 

I had originally planned to actively knock on doors in swing states for the Biden/Harris campaign over the summer.  But due to the pandemic, all canvassing was done online.  Again, not my favorite thing, but quickly found advantages to being able to do phone outreach in two (or more) states on any given day.  Being engaged and active in political campaigns again refueled my own sense of energy and purpose. 

By November 7th the election results were clear:  Biden was in, but Georgia was having a runoff for TWO Senate seats in January.  And it just so happened that these two seats would pretty much determine the majority of standoffs in Congress for the next two years.  I could NOT sit this out, nor canvas online for this one.  I got hold of team members with The New Georgia Project, attended their virtual orientations, and told them I could knock on doors in December as much as they wanted me. They told me to come on down.

Around this time I got called back for the COVID19 vaccine trial :  They still needed volunteers for the Astra-Zeneca study taking place at Columbia Research Unit.  I went through the protocols, signed the forms, and was injected with two doses of an unknown substance on November 19th and December 19th.  I was convinced it was a placebo given I had zero side effects, but still was grateful since all participation in clinical trials helps the researchers understand what works and what doesn’t. 

I headed back and forth to Georgia three times during the runoffs.  I was proud to ultimately end up registering eight eligible voters who had not participated in the Presidential elections, knocking on 554 residential doors, and engaging 110 registered voters in-person.  The victories we subsequently witnessed on January 5th, 2021, were some of the most gratifying and satisfying of my entire career. 

And then on January 7th, I found out I had in fact received two injections of the actual Astra-Zeneca COVID19 vaccine and had the maximal protection possible.  The relief and euphoria was unlike anything else I have experienced. 

In the subsequent months I've been watching the good news, watching the sad news, watching the scary news, and realizing this country MUST find healthier ways to communicate and react if our democracy is going to survive.  What that looks like right now, I'm not sure.  But I do know Bettina's words are as relevant as ever:  Grab your shovel, find a way to dig some shit.  Decide to help, and get to work.  

While ageism tells us that we become less relevant in society, for me and for many of my peers the opposite is true.  Getting older affords us opportunities to grow, to be challenged, to seek new avenues of helping others, shovel new piles, contribute in meaningful ways.  Relearning this lesson in a COVID world has offered me a renewed sense of purpose and excitement for the uphill battles in the years and decades ahead.  

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at Damon@DamonLJacobs.com or 347-227-7707

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