Saturday, September 24, 2016

Turning an Everyday Moment into Interactive Magic:  A Stress Doc Vignette

You never know when an everyday encounter can turn into a magical – “play it forward, sideways, as well as up-and-down” – moment…like yesterday.  I had just completed a first-time exploratory business meeting with a counselor colleague at a Panera’s restaurant.  We were discussing the possibility of developing training and workshop and retreat programs.  The meeting was pretty lively; a mutual sharing of experience and skills.  Still it’s hard to truly capture one’s stage presence sitting at a restaurant table, though I did sing a line or two from one of my Shrink Raps ™.  (You can’t take me out anywhere.)  Actually, Ms. J got it!  On a similar dynamism wavelength, we were already contemplating next steps.

Having completed our brainstorm, I carried my tray to the waste receptacle.  Out of the blue, a Panera employee, a 20-something African-American male with dreadlocks, began helping me deposit my utensils.  (I’m assuming I wasn’t mistakenly throwing my tray or knife in the landfill slot.)  I thanked him, then turning to J, said, “We need to figure out where we’ll meet for our next brainstorm.”

Well Millennial Man was right there, suddenly declaring, “You should come back right here for that next meeting.”  My reply, “You’re good.  They should have you in Marketing or Public Relations.”  He grinned and said, “I know.  Tell my boss.”

Now it was my turn not to miss a beat.  I asked for his boss’ name and if he was around.  Right after saying, “Sean,” he said, “There he is behind the counter.”  I immediately called over Sean, introduced myself as a satisfied customer and then captured the above, saying, “You’ve got a fine young man over there,” pointing to our protagonist.  (Our young star was already walking behind the counter.)  Continuing with the manager, “Your employee heard me ask my colleague (at this point, J was watching, eyes widened with mouth slightly ajar) about our next meeting location.  This young man immediately began encouraging us to come back for round two.  I think he’s a Customer Service/PR natural.”  Sean smiled and thanked me, and when I turned around to leave there was Ms. J with a grin on her face.  Hey, it’s fun being a little outrageous!

Moral/Morale of the Story

This morning recounting the vignette with my friend Rod, a Pastor and Counselor, he hit the nail on the head, observing, “This was a win-win-win-win!”   Let’s itemize the array of positives:

1.  The Initiating Millennial Man.  Our protagonist demonstrated initiative; not once, but twice.  First by helping me dispose of my tray and then, paying attention to my remark, he transformed my floating in the air question into a welcoming invitation.  The young man also demonstrated confidence by agreeing with my “You should be in marketing” assessment.  And while I’m not sure if he was merely being playful, I took seriously the suggestion to speak to his manager.  It seems reasonable to presume that my actions, especially providing immediate feedback to the manager, were reinforcing this young’s man sense of self-efficacy.  Hopefully, I’m also encouraging future attentive/responsive/take charge behaviors.

2.  The Surprised Manager.  I sensed Sean, the Manager, was a bit concerned when I called him over, perhaps expecting some kind of complaint.  Now his expectations were turned upside down; in fact, his shop and, especially, one of his employees were being singled out for uncommon service.  Actually, Sean’s initial surprise (and relief) only elevates the power of my message, and likely its halo effect.  Hopefully, this initial encounter expands the communicational bandwidth between Manager and Millennial Man.

3.  An Amused (if not Amazed) Colleague.  Things happened so quickly, it was only in hindsight that I sensed the impact potential of this three-way encounter on one interested observer, i.e., Ms. J.  In my Performance Artist World, trying to describe what you do never equals “walking your talk.”  However, a pregnant moment sprung to life from the casual exchange with my young cohort.  Our brief interplay was spontaneously transformed into a public, larger-than-life stage.  I suspect Ms. J truly grasped she would be performing with a dynamic partner who would take an opening or opportunity and, not just walk, but run with it.

4.  A Mindful and Manic Stress Doc.  Perhaps all those years living in “The Big Easy” helped nurture a playful, outrageous, side.  And surely my experience as a public speaker who often improvises with an audience, also fueled that 0 to 60, touched with manic response.  (Thank you Kaye Redfield Jamison, author of Touched with Fire:  Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.  Actually, there’s also some genetic fuel adding to this man’s fire.)  And, of course, it felt good being an advocate for a deserving worker bee.  (I also realize in the pace and excitement of the moment, I forgot to ask the young man his name.  My bad!)

Finally, another reflective realization involved my initial encounter with Millennial Man.  Not only was I surprised by his sudden appearance at the disposal station, but his dreadlocks immediately caught my attention.  (Was it a racial-cultural thing; was it a function of just being a Boomer?)  However, my focus quickly shifted to an appreciation of his sly yet self-assured banter.  Maybe the takeaway is to again remember that articulate, take charge personalities come in all sizes and shapes, as well as all genders, generations, and colors.  Amen and women to that!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker, writer, and "Psychohumorist" ™, is a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative.  A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army.  The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, and Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World.  Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info, email:

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Word Artist and the Immigrant: Worlds Apart and Minds Together – Part I

In the past fifteen months, exploring and engaging with the Nepali-American Diaspora Community has generated a variety of uncommon if not unprecedented roles and responsibilities, relationships and audiences.  Concerning the cultivation of a culturally diverse path, a few learning curve, horizon-shaping experiences stand out:

a) Wrestling with Natural Catastrophe – born out of the catastrophic April 2015 Earthquake ashes, friend and colleague, Dr. DK Gurung, D.C. Govt. public health analyst and program manager, called less than twenty-four hours after the tragic mega-tremors and traumas.  He needed to both vent and to share his crisis-inspired vision.  Eventually, I helped co-found Be Well Initiative (BWI), an advocacy-training-counseling mental health/mind-body wellness collective and professional resource for the Nepali community in the US,

b) Partnering and Teaming – developing a mutually supportive yet challenging, “power of two” partnership with DK while collaborating with and learning from a dynamic and dedicated national team of Nepali- and Asian-American professionals, has expanded my Cultural Diversity (CD) consciousness.  Cultural sensitivity has grown through a mind-language-spirit convergence with DK:  sharing significantly diverse yet empathically kindred perspectives, open and honest communication, and a willingness to both trust and disagree.  A Yin/Yang image of black/white sperm-like figures flowing into a whole greater than the sum of the parts circular unity comes to mind…a representation of our “best of both worlds” synergy.  For example, just today, DK shared that it is an ability to grasp and articulate my “inner emotional landscape” that is so helpful to many for whom this is foreign territory; conversely, many times DK has pulled me back from “boldly” (or “blindly”) stepping on a Nepali CD landmine,

c) Jumping in Community Waters – doing focus group facilitation, both locally – the Greater D.C. area, with community members – and in Cleveland, OH with Asian community health workers and, later, with Bhutanese-Nepali Refugees.  An interpreter was necessary for my participation in back-and-forth communication.  In fact, during one workshop, frustration with translation slowness and lack of participant spontaneity challenged me to mostly communicate through exaggerated physical mime.  Amazingly, we all had a great time.  I only hope the participants took home a fraction of the memories and learning as did their presenter, and

d) Looking Back, Bonding in the Present, and Moving Forward – BWI and SAAN (a Nepali Nursing Assn.) held an EQ-15 Memorial community gathering at a local school; key agenda items included: 1)  individual sharing, especially the poignant audiotape of a woman who finally surmounted barriers of family dishonor and personal shame, reached out for psychiatric help, thereby stepping back from depression’s suicidal edge, 2) post-trauma reflection and stress resilience group exercises which enabled poignant and supportive sharing, thereby questioning the sanctity of any cultural taboo on publicly talking about emotional vulnerability, and 3) future planning to strengthen community mental health resource availability and accessibility.  My facilitation role and “Stress Resilience Tips for Managing Trauma, Transition, and Everyday Stress” led to being a Plenary Speaker at the July 2016, Annual Virginia Refugee Mental Health Summit.  (Email for the “inspiring” tips and/or testimonial.)

From the Speaker Sublime to the Role Ridiculous?

Then, recently, perhaps the biggest role stretch.  A 40-something Nepali lawyer, highly intelligent, educated, and credentialed in Nepal, but not yet eligible to practice as an attorney in the US, had been encouraged by DK to call me.  I had briefly met this gentleman, to be named BD, at various community events.  With his precious, ever-smiling, non-stop English-speaking, five-year old son, we even walked and talked at the D.C. National Zoo.  Still, my role as consultant, coach, and/or collaborator remained unclear.  I didn’t hear from BD for a couple of months and then the transformative call:  could we meet for speech lessons?!  Some fundamental questions kept circling this proposed novel experiment:   Why now and…why me

BD had recently obtained a part-time Legal Assistant position with a small Baltimore law firm owned by an attorney from India.  (The Baltimore area has a sizeable Southeast Asian population.)  The prospect of a post-Bar Exam character interview motivated BD to reach out.  He had to improve his English pronunciation.  He admitted even his son corrects him.

The Power of Two:  Reality and Illusion

For me, one question was “why not pursue more traditional learning routes?”  And the second, I know about psychotherapy, even being a “Psychohumorist” ™…but a “speech therapist”???  With a disappointing frown, BD explained that he had tried an ESL class that met sporadically.  (I quickly recalled being thankful for hiring a “hands on,” out-of-work computer consultant to get me started on my first desktop.)  And taking lessons from his more fluent in English Nepali-born wife…well they do enjoy practicing together, however, there’s a predictably thorny patch:  when the couple are talking about substantive content, like a mortgage payment or their son’s education, and his wife shifts into correcting his pronunciation or grammar, BD gets frustrated.  For him, the timing is wrong.  One can envision this devolving into, at best, a half full and half empty glass situation.  Supplementing couple practice with a less emotionally involved “outsider” makes sense.

Remember, the male ego can be a sensitive creature.  Alas, I’m thinking of a ditty written after another conflict with my ex; I was likely still licking some wounds:

Losing It…Resting It

You may think I’m at a loss
Not having you as a boss.
But when it’s just me
Not us or you…
Please, do not tell me what to do.

Even when you “know what’s best”
(Though never quite put to the test)
Let me flounder; wait...still better
A request:  Geez, Louise…Just let it rest!

Lingering Loyalty Limbo

Enough of my ditty-ing around…the lingering, the underlying question:  why had BD not seriously worked on his English during his almost seven years in the States?  And shortly into our initial session, his answer touched a personal chord:  BD was expecting to go home, to return to Nepal.  He rationalized that strengthening his English was not critical…but then his wife announced she wanted to stay permanently in the US.  (I imagine educational opportunities for their child also influenced the family’s decision.) 

BD’s response highlighted the state of immigrant limbo, an approach-avoidance conflict of the heart and mind that can last more years than expected.  Many discover (and not just immigrants), that when “Pursuing the American Dream,” the path of proverbial gold or, at least, land of opportunity, may be paved over with problematic stress – including language barrier, legal status, educational credential, student loan, or underemployment conglomerates, in addition to rocky loyalty limbo. 

Freedom, Family, or Folly:  Whose Dream Is It Anyway?

And when family and friends back “home” still believe in the “paved with gold” US standard, there’s even more pressure to succeed.  Paradoxically, being ten thousand miles away only intensifies the spotlight.  Perhaps there’s some guilt from feeling like you’re the one who “got away.”  Or, even more stressful, is being the explorer and “gold standard” flag bearer:  both individual and family status may be tied to how high up the social mountain (or low in the valley) you plant the family flag.   Clearly, having to live up to the expectations of “significant others” no matter the separation distance may tighten the stress knot.

Of course, with continuous learning and skill-building, as well as family, community, and/or government support, over time, it is possible to dig transitional tunnels in those paved over barriers.  (Our country is founded on such history and tenacity.)  Such focused coordination may generate “possibility portals.”  You have gained skills and savvy for exploration and discovery that:  1) allow one (or a group) to crawl under, climb through, or circumvent those concrete barriers, 2) build stress-resilience along with family/community cohesion muscles facilitating intra- and interpersonal head-heart connections, and 3) achieve new-found place, pride, and possibility.  To venture a Declaration of Immigrant Independence, most want life, liberty, and community, that is, the opportunity for oneself and one’s family to realize financial stability, emotional-spiritual and career-creative expression, healthy mind-body-social relations, along with viable and meaningful societal integration.

Jump In and Dance, Stress Doc…Just Don’t Jump to Conclusions

As for my willingness to jump in new professional waters as a speech coach…being self-employed, often not knowing when or where I’d be working; confident of my Emotional Intelligence/Communication skills, being currently underemployed myself, along with authoring the quote – Fireproof your life with variety!...  Well, “what the hell” has been a trademark over the course of a long and winding (from where is the next check coming?) professional road.

And speaking of growth opportunity, for me, working with BD on his pronunciation and some grammar, grappling with common idioms, etc., definitely added “variety as spice” to my life. (Btw, for those needing a reminder, I’m using idiom as “an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own, as ride herd on for ‘supervise’”; Merriam-Webster Online.)

And while I have never been a speech tutor, I actually did take a Remedial Speech class in primary school to erase a lisping tendency.  I’m somewhat conscious of the dance of tongue, lips, and teeth when we speak. Also, his wife had a speech book with illustrations; reviewing helped me improve the proper positioning of those aforementioned “dance step” components.  In addition, my listening skills as a therapist certainly comes into play when assessing diction, accent, pace, and overall clarity.

Even my love of wordplay was useful.  When trying to say “special,” BD was pronouncing “cial” more like the second half of “pencil” or “specil.”  He was missing the “sh” sound when “cial” (or “tial,” think “spatial” or “palatial”) was the closing suffix.  I suddenly saw a playful pronunciation “pass in the impasse” for words like special, facial, glacial, etc.  When he sees “cial” think “CIA…Spies, secrets, keeping quiet…Shh!   BD, an advocate in the field of international human rights, got it…and laughed knowingly.

Starting Over:  Sensitivity, Levity, and Honesty

Clearly, when a highly credentialed adult must “start over” …it’s often a daunting psychological challenge feeling like a raw beginner, a “stranger in a strange land.”  Language acquisition and verbal facility interface with such self-defining issues as identity, competence, social status, as well as educational-professional legitimacy and opportunity.  No surprise that wounded pride may come into play in such a dependent, vulnerable, and “fine line between humility and humiliation” learning situation.  Which is why our aforementioned “CIA” moment of levity is so helpful in an arduous educational process.  As I once penned:  People are less defensive and more open to a serious message gift-wrapped with humor.

Or they’re more willing to honestly share the same:  After a couple of sessions, BD acknowledged that ego or pride also delayed his asking for speech help.  As he said, a dominant cultural dictum:  Never expose any weakness to the larger (Nepali) social community!

I can relate.  As echoed in several !2-Step groups, the familiar dysfunctional family mantra:  Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel!  Almost as American as, Don’t air your dirty laundry.

Closing Summary

This essay captures the evolution of my work to date with the Nepali-American Diaspora Community:  from helping to develop an informal mental health/mind-body wellness organization and being part of a planning, advocacy, and training team to engaging with various Nepali/refugee communities and cultures.  And now the emergence of a new role as speech coach with a Nepali attorney trying to carve out his own “American Dream” path.  My latest learning-coaching encounter stands on the shoulders of my year + immersion in cultural diversity.  (Actually, about dozen years earlier I had been a workshop leader at several Asian-American and Pacific Islander Federal Employee Conferences.  A chunk of this earlier experience and encounters, including initially meeting DK, are embedded – some clearly, some vaguely – in my consciousness.)  Which brings me to the original intent of this two-part essay:  while working with BD, I suddenly saw many similarities between immigration trials, tribulations, and travels as well as the mentally meandering, manic and melancholic, mood-and-mind-challenging paths of one struggling word artist.  Having laid down a cultural-conceptual foundation, Part II will examine the parallel crisis-laden – danger and opportunity-filled – worlds of “The Word Artist and the Immigrant:  From Creation of a Pathway to Pathway of Creation!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a nationally acclaimed speaker, writer, and "Psychohumorist" ™, is a founding partner and Stress Resilience and Trauma Debriefing Consultant for the Nepali Diaspora Behavioral Health & Wellness Initiative.  A former Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service, he has led numerous Pre-Deployment Stress Resilience-Humor-Team Building Retreats for the US Army.  The Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress, The Four Faces of Anger, and Preserving Human Touch in a High Tech World.  Mark’s award-winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" – – was called a "workplace resource" by National Public Radio (NPR).  For more info, email: