“My Gutsy Story®” Terri Elders


A Happy Heart

“So what do you do?”

In the ‘70s when strangers at parties asked this, I could have fudged…just say I worked for the county, and leave it at that. Instead I’d provide a flat-out conversation-stopper.

“I’m the psychiatric social worker for MacLaren Hall’s nursery,” I’d answer. “That’s where neglected and abused kids await court disposition. I do play therapy with the toddlers, and try to get help for their abusing parents.”

I’d smile and wait. People usually inched away, as if I’d confided that I ran pigeon drop scams on senior citizens. Or that I might be contagious.

During the ensuing silence, I’d watch eyes glaze and jaws drop.

“Oh,” they’d sputter, “I couldn’t do that.” They’d nod and sidle off in search of someone with a more socially redeeming occupation.

Burnout rates soar in my profession. Social workers, like police, rarely get thanked. Instead, they’re criticized by the very people they strive to aid, and vilified by the press and the general public for not doing enough.

I didn’t expect accolades, parades, or even sympathetic ears from strangers at parties. Nobody wants to hear about babies who’ve been abandoned in garbage bins or children who’d been tortured. I understood that, so I didn’t tell horror stories.

If anybody stuck around long enough, I could relate sunny tales. Many addicted parents I’d counseled successfully completed rehab, found jobs, and visited their children who were in foster care. I could mention the four-year-old voluntary mute who spoke again as we manipulated finger puppets.

In earlier days, my husband, Bob, a policeman, listened patiently when I vented. With an equally stress-filled job, he empathized. Over the years, though, he’d sought relief in vodka, eventually spiraling downwards into alcoholism. He’d been in several out-patient programs, and on and off the wagon, but nothing took. I’d occasionally think of divorce, but I’d shove that troubling notion aside. He needs me, I’d convince myself.

Not long before I started at MacLaren, Bob entered an in-patient program. This one worked. With a commitment to sobriety, he no longer was around to give me emotional support. He spent every free minute in Twelve Step meetings and hospital aftercare programs.

I needed to find support elsewhere. I recognized that some of my colleagues already suffered from compassion fatigue, burnout, and depression. Some coped by eating compulsively or relying on tranquillizers. I wanted to continue with my job, but certainly didn’t want to pack on unneeded pounds, float through my days like a zombie, or eventually be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

I started to frequent an art gallery that published a magazine. I wrote articles for it, and made friends who were artists, photographers and poets. I enrolled in an aerobic dance class, and lost myself in choreographed routines, pretending to be a Broadway chorine.

Despite these distractions, my marriage continued to unravel. One day, toweling off after a particularly invigorating aerobics session, I noticed my heartbeat seemed to stutter. By the time I got dressed, it beat normally again. I forgot about it until one day at work when I broke out in a cold sweat. The stutter had returned.

I saw my doctor, who gave me an electrocardiogram test.

“You’re experiencing premature ventricular contractions, commonly called PVCs,” she explained. “It’s not dangerous yet, but it could be. What’s going on in your life?”

“My husband and I may be headed for divorce,” I confessed. “I worry about that, and about the children I work with. I try to take care of myself. I go to aerobics three times a week, but drink a lot of coffee.”

“Caffeine, too much exercise, a high stress job, plus anxiety over your marriage, all could be contributing factors,” she said. “The sooner you make decisions, the better you’ll be. Not knowing one way or another how a marriage or a job will work out adds to your stress. Rid yourself of uncertainty. Don’t be afraid to take the first step.”

Bob resented my new activities, preferring that I devote my free time to accompanying him to recovery meetings. Delighted with his progress, I still didn’t want my life to revolve around his sobriety, as it had around his drinking. I wanted to write and dance.

That issue resolved itself after Bob confessed he’d fallen in love with one of his outpatient counselors. We agreed to separate.

I continued working at MacLaren through one administrative upheaval after another. I’d think about leaving for a job with more regular hours, one that wouldn’t require me to work on Sundays. But I’d remember the children. They need me, I reasoned.

Then one afternoon, after I learned that my play therapy room would be converted into an additional dormitory, I felt my heart skip a beat again.

The arrhythmia was back, but this time I knew what to do. Not burned out yet, but I scented smoke. Even though I’d invested 15 years in county employment, a future retirement pension wouldn’t keep my heart healthy today.

I updated my resume, sent out applications and within months landed a new job in the private sector with an HMO. Not perfect, but a change. And my happier heart calmed down permanently.

It’s been over 25 years now since I’ve experienced any arrhythmia. It’s not as if I’ve lead a stress-free life. I’ve worked overseas with Peace Corps and held other demanding jobs. I remarried and saw my second husband through a long series of illnesses and eventual hospice care.

I do the routine things: keep caffeine to a minimum, exercise reasonably, and get enough sleep.

But my real secret is that I don’t remain immersed in uncertainty. I don’t allow myself to feel trapped by the perceived needs of others. I seek a way to take that first step. After all, I need my heart to live. I owe myself good health.

Now when people ask me what I do, I have a favorite response. It raises eyebrows.

“I keep a happy heart,” I say.

TERRI ELDERS, LCSW, lives near Colville, WA, with two dogs and three cats. A lifelong writer and editor, Terri’s stories have appeared in dozens of periodicals and anthologies, including multiple editions of Not Your Mother’s Book, Dream of Things, Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, Patchwork Path, Thin Threads, Tending Your Inner Garden and God Makes Lemonade. She is the in-house copy editor for Publishing Syndicate, and co-creator of its anthology, Not Your Mother’s Book: On Travel. She blogs at http://atouchoftarragon.blogspot.com/.

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 SONIA MARSH SAYS: Your strength and determination to keep yourself “in balance” despite your demanding job and the pressures in your marriage, are admirable. I am a curious person and would love to have asked you more about your profession, had we met during a social occasion. I was touched by your statement, “Social workers, like police, rarely get thanked.”  So I’d like to thank you for all your years of helping neglected and abused children.

An Exciting Pubslush Campaign and Video

I’m starting a Pubslush campaign for the launch Event on September 26th of our first:

My Gutsy Story® Anthology: Real Stories of Love, Courage and Adventure from Around the World.


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There are many exciting rewards. Please WATCH the VIDEO I made with 8 Gutsy people in it.

I am grateful for any level of support and please make sure you share the link (http://GutsyLiving.pubslush.com) with all your friends, followers and more. ENJOY!


Comments (38)

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  1. Terri, I am in awe of all the help you’ve given neglected and abused children throughout the years, and yet managed to stay active in other areas of your life.
    I would love to talk to you about the Peace Corps as that’s something I really want to do myself.
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  2. bobbybarbara says:

    Oh Teri! I love that last line! You have more layers to you then an onion! I am amazed by your many accomplishments and talents. This story is another fantastic example of your writing skills, and your warm, happy heart.

  3. Jane Conn says:

    Terri, your story is truly an inspiration to all–dealing with stress, adversity. Giving living examples of “not remaining immersed in uncertainty”–how to survive, thrive and make a difference in the lives of others. May we all take your words of wisdom to “heart”–and live with a warm and happy heart.

    • Terri Elders says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jane. It’s a difficult lesson to learn. When I worked as a psychotherapist I found that people would rather stay stuck than risk the unknown. But if what you know is making you sick at heart, it pays to make the jump!

  4. Eve Gaal says:

    What a lovely website with the ocean and sand looking like the cover of my book. I loved being a part of NYMB on Travel because it is a book full of heart. Congratulation Terri on handling it so well.

  5. Very well done on regaining control of your life and your health through a difficult period in your life and while working one of the most stressful jobs I know.The options of drugs and drink are all too easy to easy the pains, strains and stresses, you made the wisest but probably the hardest choice.
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  6. Annmarie Tait says:

    Terri – What a wonderful story with some very sage advice, “Don’t remain immersed in uncertainty”. Your story demonstrates how you learned this very valuable lesson. Thank you for sharing it. I hope all who read this great story resolve to not remain immersed in uncertainty. The present moment is the most important moment of all. Thanks again for a great story!!

    • Terri Elders says:

      Annmarie, what a great reminder about staying in the present. Even on gray chilly mornings when you think the sun will never shine again, you’re alive and in that moment.

  7. Mark Crider says:

    Terri, you certainly set an excellent example of how to survive tough times in your relationships. You are one tough lady.
    Mark Crider

    • Terri Elders says:

      Thanks, Mark. Sometimes I feel like I’m a little old marshmallow, but when I look back, there’s been times I’ve learned to draw on inner strengths that I didn’t even know I had!

  8. Pat Nelson says:

    Thanks, Terri, for sharing your wisdom.

    • Terri Elders says:

      So great that you took the time to visit this site and to read my story…thanks, Pat, and I look forward to your book this next month: Not Your Mother’s Book…On Parenting!

  9. Lola De Maci says:

    Terri, I read your story three times to make sure I didn’t skip a thing you had to say. You are such an inspiration in so many ways. I always tell my children that I want a “happy heart” when they ask me what I want for my birthday or for Christmas. You have given me the answer to finding it. Thank you. Lola De Maci

  10. Terri, I really enjoyed reading your story. From what I read in the papers here and hear on the news, working with the children can be a heartbreaking, yet I’m sure, a rewarding job–and stressful. It sounds like you got out in time. I admire you for what you’ve done in the years since then. The Peace Corps! How exciting. (I also enjoy reading the things you’ve written for anthologies!)

  11. Terri Elders says:

    Lola, thank you for all your positive comments…and for the thank you note that arrived today. You embody a positive outlook and I hope your children provide that gift that you ask for!

  12. Terri: thanks for the reminder for me to not focus on the what-if, but on the what-can-be. Great lesson for me, especially with everything going on in the world. As soon as I post this comment, I’m going to put off my morning work and go play my cello. Thank you for being an inspiration…I want to be YOU when I grow up! 🙂

    • Terri Elders says:

      Dahlynn, though it’s great to enjoy daydreams about what-might-be, too much obsessing can lead to nightmares instead. it’s just the way our brains get warped with anxiety overload. Love that you are taking time for the cello! Wish that NYNB band we all talked about could get together for a concert one day. My sand paper blocks await a chance to show off again. xox

      • Kathy Baker says:

        Terri, you never cease to amaze me! You truly are an inspiration…we could all use a daily dose of your mentoring. I know several of us could use some sage advice about our OCD! lol.

        One of these days we ARE going to put on that concert…but I’ve forgotten what my instrument is supposed to be. The triangle, symbols or sticks?


  13. Lady Fi says:

    You’re a strong woman and an inspiration!
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  14. Terri … as with many of the commenters above, I love the last line. But your story speaks to my sense that control over our lives is an illusion, and worrying about things we can’t control is a waste of time and energy. It isn’t always easy to find the “thing we love”, but it’s a much better way to live than worrying about stuff we can’t do anything about.
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  15. Mary, thanks for your comment and I agree that so many of us spend time worrying about stuff we cannot control; we just need to continue moving forward.
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  16. Sharon Leaf says:

    Your story has given me a happy heart!

  17. Terri, you’re right, it’s a thankless job! It takes a very special person to do it. My daughter just got her Masters in Social Work and looks forward to a long career. Thank you for all you’ve done! I couldn’t do the job, but I admire and respect those who can.

  18. Erika Hoffman says:

    I love your frankness! You don’t sugarcoat life’s bummers, and yet you write with a sweetness that makes even your writing about painful experiences palatable, even refreshing.

  19. Leah Deardorff says:

    I admire your openness, Terri…. we can all learn from your great example and wisdom… plus great writing!

  20. Rose Jackson says:

    I am really impressed to see your strength terri. Your story really an inspirations for all those are dealing with stress and hardships.
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