I recently accompanied one of my most special friends to a support group for LGBT individuals and those who love and support them, something I can most definitely be classified as. To say I unconditionally love and support my friend and the LGBT community as a whole is an understatement, so when invited at the last minute, I grabbed my green juice on-the-go and ran out the door, hopping in my Toyota and hitting the open road, also known as the Garden State Parkway. The meeting was in a church invoking some irony, and when we arrived, it took us several trips around the large structure to find an open door and the right meeting room. I saw a young man outside and asked him for directions because the chances of us finding it on our own were slim to none and because he was rather handsome in a hipster with a side of slightly nerdy kind of way. Mr. Handsome escorted us to our room and left, and we shyly entered only to find the majority of the group made up of older heterosexual couples due to a “parent centered” topic.
We sat down next to one another, and in true “Maria fashion,” I made a few bordering-on-inappropriate jokes to my friend to lighten the mood and pass the time since we arrived several minutes early. One by one, the rest of the group, all parents, trickled in, and it was obvious that the night wasn't going to be what we anticipated. My friend and I, both not fans of group participation, tend to get nervous when the public speaking involves free association and interjection of feelings but thrive in settings that require prepared or loosely prepared speeches given to an interested audience. In all my years of dealing with a chronic disease, I have never been to a support group, although I recommend them through and through to clients and have been the professional facilitator of many in the past, including a breast cancer survivor support group and cognitive behavioral therapy centered group therapy.
The topic of this group was “emotionally intelligent parenting,” and the discussion centered on empathy for the LGBT children, some still in their teens and many happily married/committed adults with children. One particularly interesting comment was made from a mother about how it is difficult to have empathy for her LGBT child when she has not lived the experience, and I have to admit, I thought to myself, “I’ve never lived the LGBT experience and didn’t even know an openly gay person until I was in college, and I can have immense empathy for the LGBT population.” She was clearly struggling and doing the best she could, so I extended my compassion and empathy to her, wishing her well and silently blessing her.
I can have immense empathy for anyone because I have struggled. Those who have struggled, who have felt overwhelming pain, loss, and disappointment, understand those who are struggling. It doesn’t hurt that I have two profoundly emotionally intelligent parents who taught me two distinct lessons about others growing up: 1. love everyone the same and 2. stick up for those who are vulnerable. My mother’s voice still rings in my ear at the age of nine when she insisted I stick up for a girl being bullied, “If you do nothing to stop whatever is happening, it is just as bad as contributing to the problem.” I stuck up for that little girl, and the acorns being thrown at her suddenly came hurling in my direction. It was uncomfortable but well worth the lesson I would carry with me into adulthood and that I’m sure propelled me toward the clinical social work profession (part of our Code of Ethics includes advocating for vulnerable, oppressed, and disenfranchised populations).
I am often told by others, especially those older than me, that I am very mature and compassionate, and I have acquired the label of an “old soul” on more than one occasion. My response is always a humble “thank you” followed by a comment about the two amazing individuals who raised me. I could take all the credit, but it wouldn’t be fair. I’m lucky to have such wonderful parents.