Given the recent news of the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade by suicide, I wanted to address how we as readers should care for people in distress who seek our assistance.
Tarot card readers are not licensed healthcare providers (*although some licensed health care professionals may in fact be card readers). I do not provide that kind of mental health care. However, I am a compassionate human being and by the nature of my job, I am often discussing these issues with my clients. And I take it very seriously. I’d like to share how I personally handle “crisis” issues when they surface during a reading and my tips for being prepared.
First, a little background.
To be honest, I am not unused to being the “safe ear” for people. Throughout my life I have had people I don’t know turn to me and start telling me their inner feelings, worries, and struggles. This would happen in lobbies and waiting rooms, in bathrooms at the sink washing our hands next to each other, and numerous other places where strangers find themselves spending brief amounts of quiet time together. These impromptu confessionals would generally surprise both of us and frequently the other person would say, “I really don’t know why I’m telling you all of this.” It used to confuse and worry me, especially in my teens. I felt like I was unknowingly running around with Wonder Woman’s golden lasso of truth. I couldn’t understand why they would turn to ME or what I was supposed to DO about it.
As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that sometimes the safest outlet for our deepest fears is precisely someone who doesn’t know us and who at least appears outwardly gentle. I’ve learned to value just how important my reaction to their pain and vulnerability is as well. Their trust may not have been a gift I asked for, but it is one they have offered to me and I must be kind.
I have learned to be a compassionate ear in the moment and offer what little advice I may have for them; always aiming to leave them feeling more empowered to live their lives than when they first approached me. Mostly they need to feel heard without judgement and, occasionally, pointed in the direction of the help they need. I even trained and worked briefly as a volunteer for the crisis hotline at MOCSA (Missouri Organization to Counter Sexual Assault). This training included ways to offer support and guidance without crossing the boundary of “prescriptive mental-health care.” If you are at a place in your life where you can volunteer with an organization in this type of capacity, I highly recommend it. It will serve you well the rest of your life.
(I’ve also learned more coping strategies for protecting myself and my own emotions through this process. Taking in the trauma of others can be difficult and if not handled carefully, even harmful. But I will go into that more at another time.)
The first year I worked at the local Renaissance Festival as a Tarot reader, I worked a shift in which four of my clients that day were in extreme emotional duress: The first sat at my table, when I looked up at them and into their eyes, before either of us had said a word, they began to cry. The second, it became evident, was in an abusive situation and her abuser was sitting at the table with us. And two more clients confided that they felt suicidal. I helped each as best I could and strongly encouraged them to reach out to counseling and hotlines that could help them. I went home that evening feeling powerless and overwhelmed. Particularly about the client who sought my help despite their abuser watching and listening to our every word. I just remember the horrifying 30 seconds when the abuser had gone to get a chair and my client looked me in the eye with such desperation and told me they didn’t want to be controlled anymore. I analyzed every last detail of our interaction and tried to figure out what more I could’ve done to help them. I just kept thinking, if only there’d been some way I could’ve slipped them a note tucked under my business card with the domestic-abuse hotline scrawled on it. But hindsight is 20/20 and I didn’t have that number memorized. I carry this experience with me as a reminder of the importance of the trust my clients have in me and how absolutely important it is that I help them in the most appropriate way.
So here are my top tips for creating that safe space for my clients:
I have typed up a list of hotlines and printed them on small slips of paper that may be discretely handed to clients I suspect may benefit from any or all of these services.
My current list (and the numbers included are mostly based for the Kansas City area as that’s where a majority of my clients are.)
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
KC Domestic Violence Hotline (connects to all 6 local shelters): 816-468-5463
Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
KCAVP (LGBTQ Domestic Violence / Hate Crimes Hotline): 816-561-0550
LGBTQ Youth Hotline: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860
Make your list specific to the area/city where a majority of your clients are based. If there’s a topic that comes up for your clients frequently that is not addressed in the organizations above, look it up and add it! Sometimes different people attract the trust of those going through particular issues. For example, if you have clients struggling with gambling addiction on more than one occasion… find the hotline for that and put it on your list!
2. PROVIDE TISSUES
It really is that simple. I have a small fabric case with a travel packet of tissues that I keep on my table. The moment I recognize the tell-tale signs of tears rising… I quietly move the tissues next to my client. This not only gives them the tissues to use, but it sends a silent signal that it’s ok to cry (or sneeze) and that they are obviously not the only ones to have done so at my table. Sometimes even I need the tissues.
It is common in our culture to shame others for crying. So many people are automatically ashamed or even afraid to cry in front of others. On the other hand, I feel it is equally important to not go to the other extreme and demand that they “let it all out.” Tears are a physical symptom of emotional distress. Just as I wouldn’t look at someone’s paper cut and say, “Yes, that’s it, bleed!” I’m not about to make any sort of demands on someone’s tears. I generally don’t say anything at all, offering them tissues is my gentle acknowledgement. Inevitably they will apologize. I simply say, “No, it’s fine. It’s totally normal.” and then continue on with our conversation.
3. RESPECT THEIR BOUNDARIES
I am respectful of my client’s boundaries. If we are getting into topics that are difficult for them or I notice a rising discomfort, I am sure to say, “Feel free to stop me. This is all up to you. If you don’t want me to say anything more about this, you just let me know.” And then I STAND BY THAT. I do not push my clients. Ever. They have hired me. It’s their reading.
4. EMPOWER THEM
The biggest damage that the “fortune-teller” style of reading can do is to disempower the client. I do not predict the future. I do not tell anyone what they or someone else is absolutely going to do. That is not my job; that is not what my cards and years of expertise and life experience are for. Fortune-telling and purely-predictive readings are useless in my opinion anyway.
The client must always feel empowered to be doing positive work in their own lives by the time they stand up from my table. This is what I learned from a lifetime of people-I-don’t-know crying to me in desperation in public bathrooms… we have a brief amount of time together and the only real gift I can give them are words and a demeanor that will encourage them to take steps to help themselves. It’s different in every scenario. But there is always SOMETHING that can be said to another person that will help them take action to better their situation. Sometimes it’s, “Maybe you should go to the park and watch the ducks while you think through what’s going on.” Sometimes it’s, “It sounds like you don’t feel safe, do you know where you can go to be safe?” If you listen, most of the time they have an answer. If they don’t, some gentle nudges in offering possibilities will generally get them going in identifying the options available to them. They know themselves better than we will ever know them. Period. No matter how many subtle clues and signs I pick up on over the course of a conversation, no matter how amazed they are at my ability to have insight into their situation, they are the ones carrying their life story. Respect that.
Those mini-crisis moments with strangers have helped me develop a reading style that offers my clients ideas and encouragement about how they can help themselves. Even if that empowerment is, “You can call this number to get the additional help you may need.”
There is a mental-health crisis in The United States (and many other countries as well.) Depression is a deadly predator. It dresses itself up in our own voices and dances around inside our brains saying the most damaging, hurtful, and awful things to wear us down. Someone dying from depression (suicide) and someone dying from a physical illness are not that different, they both eventually just wear away at our stamina. A friend of mine once said, “The only thing depression wants is to get you alone so it can have its way with you.” The most important thing we can do is to make sure that when anyone expresses fear, loneliness, or depression… let them know in some way that they are not alone and do not ever need to be.
Be a safe recipient of trust. For others and yourself.