Monday, March 22, 2021

35. Look For The Helpers

The Helpers are those who educate, inspire, and offer us hope that life can get better. 

I was not a big fan of The Mister Rogers Show as a child, but I do remember hearing this sage piece of wisdom somewhere early in life.  If there was an earthquake, look for the helpers.  If there’s a fire, look for the helpers.  If the Manson Family comes to kill you, well then you’re out of luck but if you do somehow get away, look for the helpers.  

Throughout my academic and professional careers I have always looked for the helpers, the mentors, the role models to whom I could turn to for guidance and clarity.  These are people I would ask for advice when I was lost, confused, scared, knocked down, or discouraged.  I can’t imagine what it would be like turning fifty without knowing the people who have helped me get back up, become the human being I want to be, and continue to show me I still have a long way to go:

Nancy Goldberg (“Goldie”) is the first adult who helped me learn how to challenge the toxic status-quo and not accept artificial limitations and dysfunctional standards in 1988.  For more than four decades Goldie kept her classroom door open during lunch and after school for the outcasts and misfits at Culver City High School.  Not coincidentally, she was one of the first confidants for dozens of LGBTQ youth over the years including me.  She is still a vibrant member of her family and community, and someone who has shown me how one can have purpose, passion, integrity, and plenty of piss and vinegar at all stages of life.

Margaret Benson Thompson began working with me in year two of my MFT internships in California in 1997.  I was professionally beat down pretty badly during year one (that story is coming up), and came away from that placement doubting myself and my therapeutic skills.  During one of our first conversations I was freaking out because a client hadn’t returned for a session, and I had been conditioned to believe that a client’s absence was a reflection of their therapist’s skills.  I gave Margaret all the reasons why it was my fault the client he didn’t come back:  I said the wrong thing, I crossed my legs at the wrong point, I left the wrong message on their answering machine, I wore the wrong color shirt, maybe I looked tired, maybe my shoe was untied… to which Margaret said, “Nah, I don’t think we have that much control.”  And from that point on, I knew I was going to be okay.   Margaret gave me permission to learn how to show up as myself in the therapy room, to trust the learning process, make mistakes, be playful, find the "magic" of doing therapy.  She helped me to learn we’re not in control of our clients showing up, especially when they are dealing with systemic oppression and traumatic stressors outside the clinic.  She taught me to believe in myself as a therapist and that is a gift I have always been grateful for.

Dr. David Lundquist took a chance hiring me to work in the Assessment Crisis Evaluation Services (ACES) unit in Indio in 2001.  I didn’t have much experience,  I still looked young, I needed a specific kind of clinical supervision in order to accumulate hours.  And, I did have a bit of an attitude at times.  But David hired me to work in his department, and proved to be a steady source of wisdom, support, and guidance through the years.  It was under his leadership that I received the work experience and supervision I needed to pass my MFT exams in the state of California.  Once I was licensed, David selected me to pilot a new Intensive Brief Treatment program in Cathedral City, where I essentially got to run therapy groups all day, experimenting with creative ways of therapeutically engaging clients including games, education, art therapy, music, and an occasional rerun of Roseanne.  It is because of David I had one of the most rewarding professional placements of my life and then had the confidence and experience to bring my game to New York.

Leah Strock is one of the unsung heroes and champions of gay men’s sexual health in New York City.  For over twenty-five years she has been providing hands-on support and non-stigmatizing HIV/STI education for the queer community.  She was swabbing men's butts long before the CDC recommended providers do so, and has been a fierce champion of transgender rights in healthcare long before there was any kind of organized movement behind it.  I met Leah in 2006 when I volunteered for an HIV vaccine trial at Project Achieve. Leah was the nurse with whom I would check-in, report side effects and symptoms, and generally just hang out and shoot the shit with on a regular basis.  But Leah doesn’t just process paperwork and research subjects, she takes time to truly get to know you, care about you, ask you questions, and carefully listen to your answers.  She knew I was in a difficult place professionally in 2009 (another story coming up) and suggested that while I was between jobs, I perhaps could do some work as a recruiter / educator at Project Achieve.  Leah understood me well enough to know that a part-time job where I could stay up all night talking about sex and HIV Prevention with complete strangers in bars and nightclubs was exactly the kind of work I needed at that moment.  It is because of this job that I learned about PrEP very early on, began using it in 2011, and made teaching about it this third (or fourth) act of my career.  At the time I’m writing this Leah is working tirelessly to help eligible New Yorkers get access to COVID19 vaccines, continuing her legacy of helping her community ascend.  Her presence has been a gift to me, and to the greater New York City community as a whole (and holes!).

I call David Schwing “Angel” because he has been looking out for me as a mentor and a friend since 2011.  I don't think it's ever easy to start a private psychotherapy practice in Manhattan, but it was even harder in the middle of a major financial recession.  By the time I started my business David had been operating his Flatiron psychotherapy practice and proudly serving the GLBT community of New York City for well over 25 years.  He has a strong resolve and deep comprehension of why people suffer, and how they can stop.  He has always been generous with his time, with his support, with his advice.  He believed my therapy practice would survive even when I wasn’t certain.  By 2012 I found myself in that unenviable limbo between outgrowing the hours of the space I was renting out, yet not being ready to take the next step of assuming responsibility for my own therapy office.  David literally shared space by allowing me to use his office during after hours and weekends to help me through this transition, and ultimately he helped me acquire the office I am working in now.  These days David stays away from New York City in order to protect himself and his loved ones from COVID19.  His absence is one of the many losses I have felt this year.  But just like the lights on Broadway, I know that David will eventually come back to share his radiant energy in person and help the rest of us shine as well.   

When I say Dr. Robert Grant is the Jonas Salk of PrEP I’m not being hyperbolic.  Dr. Grant, or “Bob,” is the reason more than 700,000 people across the world are using a daily pill to prevent HIV.  His meticulous research, his priority on science, his interest in humanity, makes him a hero to me.  But Bob is more than all this.  At the heart of his professional work and goals is to help human beings love and connect without HIV as a barrier to dating, making babies, or just having really hot sweaty sex.  We hit it off in real life in 2014 and ever since then he has been a consistent source of support, reassurance, and guidance for me.  Whenever I had a question about something that was reported in a trial, he answered. When members of my PrEP Facts Facebook group would panic over a rumor, Bob would help me help them understand the facts and science.  It is because of Bob's contributions that the PrEP Facts Facebook group was linked in the World Health Organization’s 2015 PrEP guidelines, which no doubt has helped the group receive international attention and acclaim.  Today Bob has turned his medical attention and research to understanding the therapeutic benefits of ketamine, cementing his commitment to helping human beings learn innovative ways to reduce trauma and enhance living. 

I mentioned the privilege of meeting Greg Millett in 2016 in Lesson 46.  It is my experience that some people who have achieved a certain level of “success” can be withdrawn, reserved, and a bit difficult to access.  Greg Millett is exactly the opposite.  He is well known in the community for being accessible, compassionate, and generous with his time.  Our conversations have helped me to believe in myself and dream a bigger dream.  It was his insight and assistance that ultimately led to shaking President Barack Obama’s hand at the White House in 2016.  In the ensuing years Greg has provided friendship, support, wisdom, advice.  When a fringe group of “activists” came after me in the Summer of 2019, Greg offered practical and incisive advice about how to navigate the situation, as he had been on the receiving end of irrational rage on plenty of occasions himself.  His research with gay/bisexual Black Men has sought to change the racist presumption that Black Men engage in “higher risk behaviors” more than non-Black men, which overlooks the social determinants of health and structural inequalities that perpetuate disparities in healthcare and HIV rates.  He remains an outspoken advocate of sexual rights, harm reduction, Black Lives Matter, and a trusted friend to me today.

The Helpers are those who educate, inspire, and offer us hope that things can get better.  I am so thankful to the Helpers who have informed and enhanced my experience of living and learning The 50 Lessons of 50.  They have all helped me and countless others over the decades to grow, to thrive, and live abundantly joyful lives.  

 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 or 347-227-7707

No comments:

Post a Comment