In 2005, I agreed to facilitate two men's domestic violence groups for Family Services of the Desert. Men are referred by Probation, Parole, or Child Protective Services, because there was a reported incident of domestic violence. Besides jail time, a felony record, and a disrupted, or sometimes ended relationship, many lose their children, and are only allowed supervised weekly visits. Domestic violence has a HUGE impact and serious consequences for those involved. These men must attend 52 weeks of 2-hour sessions, or they will return to jail for a violation of probation. I did these men's groups from May, 2005 to May 2006.
This year, I agreed to substitute for 2 weeks, as the group facilitator, was out having surgery. The first week, There were still seven of the guys I knew from my old group. I was greeted warmly with hugs, and smiles, and a huge "Welcome Back". The men that were new to me, seemed to trust that I was "OK", given the easy relationship I had with their peers. I learned why the "newer" group members had done to get there, and found out what my "old clients" had been up to for the last seven months.
I was especially happy to find that one group member had reunited with his wife, and it was going well, and to learn that another group member had gone through a residential treatment center, and was now sober! After check-in, we drew genograms, (a therapist word for a multi-generational "family tree"). I collected these to continue the lesson the following week.
When I returned to the group last night, after discussing everyone's holiday plans, cultural and family traditions, I passed out their genograms and 4 felt pens per person. They made a "Key" or "Legend", like on a map, and circled family members with the following: hereditary health problems, difficulties managing anger or an incident of violence, alcohol or drug abuse, and other "Mental Health" issues (depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, etc.). During this process, a group member (who had been absent last week), began to act out. When I said, "Circle anyone with a history of anger or violence in the next color", he became very sarcastic.
Group member: "Can we circle our ex"?
Palma: "Anyone, male or female with anger problems"
Group Member: "Oh, it's is MIRACLE! It's a WOMAN, admitting women have anger
Palma: "Many people, of either gender, can have problems managing their feelings,
Group member: "I can't believe she is admitting women are violent too!"
Palma: "One of the things you are here to learn is to respect women. Tonight, you can practice that with ME. You may speak respectfully, and only when you are called on, if you would like to stay in this group tonight. You are also in this group to learn how to take responsibility for and deal with YOUR anger problems, not to blame them on your ex. If there is a question somewhere in your comments about women and viloence, I will tell you that we also have women's domestic violence groups. They also learn to take responsibility for their past poor choices, deal with their consequences, and stop blaming their spouses and children for their lack of control."
The group member was well-behaved for the next hour. When I asked the group to share how it felt to look at patterns of behavior in their family, he made another inappropriate comment.
One of my "old guys" had lost his young son last spring. He has made incredible steps and gone from homeless, and jobless, raising three young children, to sober, employed (with a recent promotion), and appropriately dealing with his grief. He shared that he felt quilty looking at his family tree because he was circled in three colors: anger, depression, and substance use. He shared occasionally smoking marijuana to "chill out" after work, but said he didn't do it in front of his kids, and has cut down on his use, and wanted to know if I thought he had an "addiction".
The acting out group member said, "Like it matters to you what she thinks...!"
Before I could even open my mouth to respond, my client turned to him and said,
"You have no idea what she taught us!" Then he looked at a couple other of my past guys who had been with me in May. "Do you remember those things she gave us?
(On my last night, I gave each group member a small pewter stone with a word etched on it, talked about their strengths, how they had grown during their time in group, and I told them my hopes for them in the future.)
He contnued, "Mine said, "HOPE". I had very little, but I put in in a frame above my bed. I look at it EVERY morning, and remember the faith in me that Palma had. I carry her card in my wallet, and two weeks ago, my wallet was stolen. It was a hassle to replace my driver's license and a credit card, but I was most upset about losing her card, because someday, I want to call her and tell her that I have changed all the negative things that were in my life!"
I was speechless for a second, as the others said, "I still have mine too." I gave the client a new card, answered his questions about addiction, and others shared their experiences looking at their family tree. I brought them Christmas cookies, and the group ended. As they were leaving, the "acting out client" walked up to me and shook my hand, saying, "Merry Christmas. I'm sorry I was a jerk."
We never know, what impact we may have on a client, a family, a friend, or even a stranger. It is the season for HOPE, for PEACE, and hopefully for these men, a new year ahead without violence.