Birth happens. It happened to us all, somehow, improbably. Any cursory internet search will tell you that the odds of being born a human being are 1 in 400 trillion, perhaps 1 in 400 quadrillion. As therapists we have studied about birth trauma, which is the real horror show experience of leaving something so warm, insulating and nourishing, and suddenly being thrust into an atmosphere of air and intense light, uninsulated sound, and those smells. Newborns have a strong sense of smell, and guess what? They like the smell of their mothers best. More precisely—their mother’s milk. And here I’ll kindly introduce my birth-related trauma Numero Uno: I wasn’t breast fed. The dominant narrative at the time, which was the late 1960’s, was that that formula was “better for you” than breast milk. My mom was a registered nurse, but she didn’t nurse me. Poor me. Right? Wrong! My mother loved me. She attached to me, and I to her. She gazed into my eyes. I have home movies to prove it! She doted over my every developmental milestone with a magnitude of kindness and affection that’s impossible to measure or even describe. But what’s important to note here is the odds of that kind of love and attachment are not nearly as rare as being born a human being. Despite interpersonal and relationship difficulties, despite financial hardship, or any number of personal issues related to mind and emotions, mothers usually find a way to bring these basic qualities of care and attention to their children. Not always perfect, not always at the right time, but “good enough” for most of us. Yet we still blame our parents—although it often falls on the mother—when things haven’t turned out so well. But I would like to defend our parents, especially the mothers of children with mental health and behavior challenges. This is coming from the place of the Team Supervisor, which is to say, the one who holds “the big view” of these treatment teams we put together at Windhorse. The mother is one to be honored and respected from the Windhorse contemplative view and in countless other wisdom traditions. Without our mothers, we don’t have life. That we have mothers is the very ground for the expression of our innate intelligence. We have come through someone, and they have allowed us to tear them apart in the process. All of it for us! Although not a requirement for excellence, many Team Supervisors at Windhorse have children. Sadly, some of us have outlived our children, or have ourselves had children with serious physical illness or mental health issues of their own. We know what it’s like to have either raised kids or to have been around so many young people over the years that our parenting instincts naturally make themselves available on these teams, where that brand of energy and expression calls us forth. These instincts to teach, to tend, to protect, nourish and give space for independence and even risk-taking direct us toward a natural alliance with parents moving through transition with their adult children, and as they move toward independent life in a Windhorse household. This collaborating with parents takes place early in the team formation. Parents often want to know how things are progressing, what is happening during Basic Attendance shifts; they want to know if medicines are being supervised, or how their money is being spent. All good things that the Team Supervisor can relate to them, and partner with them to form a team that makes the most sense for their loved one.
Here we are. We’re old. Even if we’re not that old, we’re old compared to any earlier time than the present. Every photograph of us reveals a version younger than who we are, even if it was taken on a phone just a moment ago. We’re old—and we’re only getting older. As a Team Supervisor, being old is a virtue, but sadly our society tends to ignore old folks. I’ll often hear older people say they feel “invisible” when out and about town. People aren’t making eye contact; they’re not noticing their beauty or hearing what they have to say. Others often complain that their accumulated knowledge has been parked in a cul-de-sac, abandoned, hubcaps stripped and waiting for a tow. Team Supervisors tend to be older people, having lived through many stages of adult life, and have a good appreciation for the stages of development that can take place during a team’s journey. By virtue of the position, the Team Supervisor takes a bigger, more comprehensive view than the other team members, and witnesses and tends to these developmental stages. Windhorse teams can be long-term situations, where the client and team members grow up together, or at least move through significant stages of aging themselves. This is difficult to notice when it’s happening subjectively. Therefore, it is not only helpful but necessary for the Team Supervisor to make note of and reflect these movements toward recovery and growth to the team, to the client and to the family, as an elder counselor or grandparent might observe and acknowledge certain developmental milestones or help usher through rites of passage.
People, often young adults, come to Windhorse because they’re not doing well at home or at school, or with life on their own. Somewhere along the line they’ve likely been told they’re mentally ill and need to do something about it. That’s the truth of many people’s experiences—that they are sick in one way or another. From a contemplative point of view, sickness is not good news or bad news. It’s just news. It’s a reminder that our bodies and minds are temporary situations, continuously falling apart, reorganizing, falling apart, reorganizing, never the same as the moment before. It’s one of those undeniable truths or laws of impermanence. At Windhorse we take that very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we apply it to everyone involved in our treatment, not just to the client. One of our foundational phrases at Windhorse is “mutual recovery:” it is not only the client who is locked in a personal struggle to find meaning and understanding amongst the confusion and loneliness in this life. We’re all working at this in our own ways, and we can all learn from each other during this project of building teams, making relationships, engaging the community, tending to household responsibilities, and taking care of our bodies and minds. The Team Supervisor has typically had more experience with all of this, and has the privilege of sharing what they know, guiding the recovery process based on their own relationship with illness and psychological wounding. This life is precious, but it is also wounded, and Team Supervisors must be in close relationship with their own wounds. A good Team Supervisor has developed some understanding of how these wounds have shaped their own lives and is willing to bring that learning to bear in the treatment setting, either by sharing directly to the client or team members appropriate observations and insights, or by simply being open to the pain and confusion that sometimes arises—breathing in the claustrophobia and anxiety, breathing out relaxation, healing accommodation and confidence. One cannot practice in this manner without having a very intimate and open relationship with sickness. This is one of the Team Supervisor’s most important responsibilities. The Team Supervisor must also have a good understanding of medicine, both Western psychotropic medication (psychiatric meds) and “relationship medicine,” which is the potent and synchronizing treatment effect of Basic Attendance. These two forms of medication work in concert on our Windhorse teams. It is also true that many who come to us are experiencing states of mind so extreme and so painful that the intimacy of Basic Attendance and household life are too intense to endure without pharmaceutical assistance. Many have become disillusioned with psychiatry because of distorted portrayals in the media or having been overmedicated themselves in the past. The Team Supervisor must understand how helpful it can be for one to have the best balance or combination of medication, and to notice when those medicines are out-of-balance, and to have the Intensive Psychotherapist get that information to the psychiatrist. As the relationships on the team develop and deepen over time, and as the household begins to enrich and hold the client in a secure and predictable manner, medications might be able to reduce further. The Team Supervisor maintains awareness of these larger environmental factors. Finally, it’s also true that some relationships on the team can become toxic. Difficulties between team members and clients invariably arise, and Windhorse Team Supervisors encourage clients and staff to work through emotional and practical difficulties on their own and with team and family support. But when those challenges (rarely) move into intractable conflict, it’s important for the Team Supervisor to recognize this and adjust. Illness and medicine have always gone hand in hand, and so have medicine and poison. The Team Supervisor will constantly be watching out for those times when the medicine might start to turn sour.
Death happens. It happens to us all, somehow, improbably. It is perhaps the consummate example of impermanence—for many, the most depressing. But really, is it? Like birth, old age, and illness, death is simply another data point of our existence, that nothing ever stays the same, everything is in a state of movement and change, moment to moment, in-breath to out-breath, flickering on, flickering out. Some Windhorse teams end after a few seasons, others last for longer, perhaps a few years. Some are teams of full adoption, where the client may stay with us in some fashion for the rest of their lives. All are welcome here, and during our short or long lives together we all must face the simple truth that death will happen to us all. Some Windhorse team members have died during my 22 years working here. Some clients have passed on as well. It’s hard. It’s always hard to lose people we love. Too, the Team Supervisor oversees and tends to the ending of their team, which constitutes a kind of death, an ending of very close relationships and other connections that have developed over time. It is important for the Team Supervisor, in this tending, to have a good sense of what it means to properly let go of the bonds, connections and entanglements that naturally form when people share significant time and space together. It’s important to do this “properly”—with good team discussions and ceremonial ending so that the space in the client’s awareness might be prepared and available for new, natural relationships to form. The Team Supervisor presides over this process, sees the client and the team through this important period of change when the person moves from this life of Windhorse social, relational, and household support to a life on their own.
The truth of impermanence is one of the most comforting laws of the land. It makes it ok that we get old, start losing things, get sick, make scheduling mistakes, say the wrong thing, offend people, make bad personal choices. Because of this truth, we can always take responsibility for our actions and return to life, to a new day with a sense that we are a regenerated person, with fresh possibilities for relationship, opportunities for contribution, one who might make new discoveries about the nature of our minds and the hidden-in-plain-sight wonders our world has to offer. This is a bigger view. This is a view that the Team Supervisor is charged with holding and sharing with others. Thus, my favorite all-time bumper sticker: Impermanence…Compassion.
Blake Baily, MA, LPC, has worked and volunteered in the mental health field since 1987. He earned his B.S. in Psychology from the University of Iowa, and was employed in the University Hospital’s acute care psychiatric facilities early in his career. After a three-year period of teaching and travel in Asia, Blake returned to study and earn a Master’s degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University, where he continued to teach for eight years. He has been a Basic Attender and Team Leader with Windhorse Community Services (2002) and is a graduate of the Windhorse Intensive Psychotherapy training. He is a certified Mindfulness Instructor, and is currently an Intensive Psychotherapist and Team Supervisor with WCS. Blake lives in Boulder with his talented and courageous daughters, Azalea and Frieda.