In the darkest moments of a family crisis, my head was filled with noise. I became hungry and then desperate for more than just a quiet place to empty my thoughts. I needed to relate to another person who would listen.
Years of Turmoil
I stood at a long table as the probate court judge asked me to give the reasons for taking temporary guardianship of my granddaughter. My wife and I had decided to represent ourselves so I had no one to speak on my behalf in a court of law. To my right was my daughter and her attorney.
In the summer of 2006, my daughter told my wife and I that she was pregnant. She gave birth several months later as turmoil swirled around her and her boyfriend. She moved in and out of his mother’s house and back into our place. Their constant jockeying for power was like a weather front of dark clouds forming and heading our direction.
All of our children were adopted out of foster care at different ages in addition to two boys coming in to our home at age fourteen and age eighteen. One had been a family friend whose mother died when he was seven. His father fell apart and we were the family of last resort.
The other wasn’t just any boy. He was the oldest brother of the girl who came to us when she was five weeks of age. But we didn’t meet him until he was eleven. Now, he was homeless after emancipating from the foster care system and he had been kicked out of three adult group homes. He was begging to live with us.
After our granddaughter was born in January 2007, we had several people living in our 2300-square foot house. I counted ten at the peak. We also had frequent visits from the LA County Sheriffs when the tensions between the various teens and young adults absolutely exploded.
The turmoil was multi-faceted with our daughter, who came to live with us at age seven, constantly losing her temper and ignoring the needs of her own daughter. My wife is a nurse practitioner and we were also mentoring other adoptive families so ignoring the yelling and arrogant treatment of an infant turning toddler wasn’t an option.
We intervened. My wife was working at her clinic and my career as a writer, non-profit marketer and fledgling actor was engulfed by the people in our house. I found a non-profit legal center that advised us. We decided hiring an attorney would seem too combative and wreck our household budget.
By the time I stood in front of the judge in May 2009, our granddaughter’s life was on the line. If the judge determined that my wife and I had a case for protecting our granddaughter then she would continue our temporary guardianship.
I hesitated when she asked me why she should continue to give us the legal status. She was strong and clear. “Mr. Simkovich, if you can’t give me a reason for what you’re seeking then you’ll walk out of here with no guardianship.”
I focused and rattled off the concerns my wife and I had laid out and reviewed. Bullet point. One, two, three, four, five, six. Now my daughter’s attorney had to make his case. He bounced around with his reasoning and the judge admonished him. We went to trial and without going into further details, it wasn’t until April 2012 that we wound up with permanent guardianship.
The process exhausted me. Laid me low. My stress was unreal. I was working on commission to develop new customers for an online marketing agency. Unfortunately, the financial crisis in 2009 and 2010 had put many companies plans on hold and the person I would speak with on a Monday had often left the company by the next week.
While riding the light rail from my home to court in downtown Los Angeles, I would sometimes be on a conference call with the firm wanting to know what leads I had for them. I’d chat quietly on the phone while rehearsing my notes for the judge. Mentally, I was drained.
In the fall of 2010, I was emotionally spent. Numb. And a realization hit home, like it was drilled into my heart. I lived in a world of noise. Constant, pounding decibels in a world of motion. Activity never ceased. Even at a place like church.
We attend a church that has had over 3,000 regular attenders each week. People come and go and the question I began to loathe and despise was, “How are you?” Or the variant, “How’s it going?”
It was lousy. Terrible. I never asked the question. I didn’t have the energy for it. Plus, I didn’t want to know how any one else was. My mind was packed. I needed someone who would sit with me and listen patiently.
There were plenty of friends who could sit, ask a few questions, give advice, and make light talk before going on their way. Or others who questioned our parenting skills, said our children were a problem, and mentioned we made a mistake in not hiring an attorney before waiting until April 2012.
They weren’t listening.
Listeners Refreshed Me
Skilled listening was an art that I didn’t appreciate. And now that I was in desperate need to unload my heart and mind, I felt like I was groping through a crowded forest of frenzied friends. I vowed to never ask someone, “How are you?” and then zip on by without waiting for more than a cursory answer.
During the rare times, I found someone who would listen, I felt strengthened and rejuvenated. Another couple who were fairly quiet but could ask meaningful questions, took my wife and I to dinner. I talked and talked and didn’t realize until later how much I needed to share. They listened. They didn’t advise and tell us what we should have done.
They were quiet but I could tell by their eyes and how they sat that they were taking in what I was saying. That was listening. Absorbing, digesting, and observing. Silence doesn’t mean not engaged. There is a thinking process that requires quiet before responding. Where do we have that in our world?
The children we adopted and the ones we took in as guardians came to us from constant noise — battles and power exchanges. Loud music. TVs blasting away.
There is the term “active listening.” All quality listening is active. It’s observing with our ears, but also with our eyes and our bodies.
One of my early lessons in listening came during an internship at a radio station while attending the University of Pittsburgh. My task was to take a microphone and tape recorder to the streets of Pittsburgh and get opinions on issues of the day. Each answer was edited into a one-minute segment for the next morning drive show.
It was a great exercise. I couldn’t talk or else my voice could mingle with a respondent and I’d ruin a particularly good answer.
Here’s how I was taught to interview. Look the person in the eye, smile, and mention I’d like their opinion or response. The answer was typically “yes.” I’d switch on the recorder while keeping eye contact and as they spoke I’d nod silently, smile, or shrug. I was listening and quite involved in their response, even though I didn’t say a word.
Being focused on their answers gave me the chance to ask follow-up questions in the search for the Sound Bite.
If I looked away or acted disinterested, I wouldn’t be able to pull their answers from them. A structured question asked by an interested party has magical and therapeutic results.
Ready to Listen
Counseling was my next step to unburden the turmoil that echoed in my head. I went first to a series of one-on-one sessions at the end of 2010. Six to be exact. I went to a man who was getting his Marriage and Family Therapist degree. He asked excellent questions, took notes, and was engaged in what I was saying.
It was my first time going to counseling and I realized the value right away. I was paying a discounted rate and after six sessions, I felt I was in good shape.
But in early 2014, another crisis hit in the form of a close relative moving in to a room of our house. He was deeply troubled and couldn’t handle his own burdens. By this time, we were raising our granddaughter and finding ways to re-build our relationship with our daughter.
I went to counseling again with another person getting her degree. She asked insightful questions and I responded to her body language and note taking. She was thorough and gave brief responses during my chatting. I also learned the power of writing in a journal as a way to unburden my mind. It was like self-listening.
Perhaps the most intense moments of family life are behind me. We still have several people living in our house and I still go to a counselor once every couple of weeks. The quiet time is helpful since there is someone dedicated to being involved in what I say by his listening.
As someone who has lived in crisis and through sweeping changes in my career and home, I’ve discovered how wonderful it is to have someone listen. They are rare and not easy to find.
Now that I have healed more, I trust I can turn around and become skilled at being an even better listener so that I can help someone else.