Reflections by Jeff Levy
From book: Spaces
Jeff Levy is the Co-Founder and CEO of Live Oak, Inc. in Chicago, an organization providing psychotherapy services, consultation, supervision, and training, to social service professionals and organizations. He holds dual master’s degrees in social work and recreation therapy. In addition to his work at Live Oak, Jeff has been adjunct faculty at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration from 2001-2017, where he created and taught a course on trauma-informed practice. He also taught at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work from 1998-2004.
Jeff has presented workshops and seminars locally, regionally, and nationally, and his efforts have been recognized with various awards. He has written numerous articles, most recently published in The Psychotherapy Networker. Jeff has held clinical, supervisory, and administrative positions in a variety of mental health and child welfare agencies. Prior to founding Live Oak full-time, Jeff was the Clinical Director at Teen Living Programs in Chicago and the Director of Program Development at The Center for Contextual Change in Skokie, IL, specializing in services for individuals and families impacted by trauma.
When not at work, Jeff writes poetry and essays, paints, and gardens. He also volunteers doing adoption home visits for an animal rescue organization located outside of Milwaukee, WI: Fluffy Dog Rescue.
What drew you to the field of mental health and psychotherapy?
I think my own experiences of “difference” growing up contributed to my desire to work with others who have experienced difference, especially when this differed to some degree of marginalization, shame, and discrimination. For me, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, being gay was highly stigmatized and in most cases, an invisible identity. Coming out during the AIDS crisis only served to continue to stigmatize gay men. So, while I was dealing with accepting one of my identities, I was also dealing with the possibility that this identity carried with it a death sentence. I became a social worker during this period and while I initially worked with young people in the child welfare system and homeless youth, I eventually began to focus more of my work in the LGBT community.
Any common misperceptions about therapy?
Historically, people have thought that you needed to be “crazy” in order to access a therapist. This has changed greatly in recent years, though for some, there still remains a stigma attached to therapy. Others think therapists “know” the answers and should be able to identify the “problem” and tell someone how to “fix it.” More and more, we are trying to help folks understand that psychotherapy is a collaborative process, and that no one essentially “knows more” than the other.
Do you have any approaches you find useful in supporting others find recovery and wellness?
I’d say understanding the mind-body-brain connection is one of the philosophies that grounds my work. We can’t really help someone make significant and lasting changes without understanding the myriad ways those changes need to be reinforced physically and neurophysiologically.
What are your thoughts about self-identity and how that influences people?
This is a huge part of the process of understanding who someone is and how to support people in making the changes they want to make. I believe that we are all comprised of multiple identities, each of which carries with it some degree of privilege and some degree of marginalization. There is also an intersection or overlapping of these identities which can vary based on time, age, place, relationship, etc. It is essential that we take an intersectional approach to understanding ourselves and our clients to support healing.
Could you talk more about any inspiring moments you have had with clients?
I am always learning from clients. Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new, or find that I have “missed the mark” in some way.
There are so many moments with clients that have inspired me and/or continue to inspire me. I worked with a young boy who couldn’t get himself to school and had seen multiple other providers. When he came to me, he and his family were feeling hopeless. We worked hard at understanding the origin of the issues and finding creative ways to support a return to school. Within six months, he was back at school and to this day, I get occasional cards from his family telling me about his status on the honor roll, his involvement in team sports, and his readiness for college.
On a sadder, but still inspiring note, I opened my office door one day and saw a young man I had worked with 20 years ago at a residential agency for children. He had been released from prison and looked me up—and after 20 years—found me and reached out to me because he remembered me as someone who had helped him.
And then each day there are moments of inspiration where someone shares a story of pain along with their amazing strength to emerge from that pain, still holding some degree of hope.
As our society is aging, and many are struggling with different types of loss, do you have any thoughts on how they can manage this part of their life?
I am one of those people in society who fits into the “aging” category. As I deal with some of this with my clients, I am also dealing with it in my own life as well. This is definitely a challenge living in a society where age is devalued and where older people are often invisible. And working with LGBT people—and gay men in particular—value is placed on physical appearance and it is the “physical” that changes the most visibly as we age. Many of the men I work with feel more invisible than they did when they were younger. And with this, especially for single older gay men, comes a hopelessness of being alone for the rest of their lives.
On a more general note, as we age, many folks struggle with making meaning, especially when career or child-rearing was front and center for such a long time.
I try to support people in thinking creatively as we age. I often ask about “unlived parts” of themselves and if possible, how can the time that is created with age (and possible retirement or even working less) create space to invite those parts to live now.
I also try to provide as much empathy and compassion for the losses associated with aging. I am speaking not only of tangible losses, but some of the intangible losses that come with aging (memory, safety, security, connection, etc.). Of course there are the physical losses that come with aging as well, which requires acceptance and adaptation to less “able” living.
Over your life, who has been most inspirational to you?
My mother was someone who accepted everyone for who they were. Rarely, if ever, do I remember her having a judgment about anyone. She was calm in the face of incredible adversity and pain. And she was truly unconditional in her love for me, even knowing there were things about me that I needed to change, or things about me that I couldn’t love myself. In her final years and even months prior to her death, she conveyed a warmth and acceptance that I’ve not known anyone else to have—at least not in the way she did. I can only think “love” when she comes to mind.
My partner of 26 years is someone else who inspires me for different reasons. He is quick to make assessments of people in a way that allows him not to care what others may think of him, as long as he believes in himself and can support his own feelings, beliefs, and actions. He is also someone who faces all obstacles with confidence in his ability to successfully tackle these obstacles. I am someone who will always literally and metaphorically “call the plumber,” while he is someone who will always know he can “fix the problem” himself. And 99.9% of the time, he can. And like my mother, he is someone who has always believed in me, even when I find it difficult to believe in myself.
How do you keep balance in your daily life and find moments of peace?
I am someone who loves sun, warmth, water, land, and mountains. I find peace in a small cottage we have in Michigan. I also find peace at our home in Chicago where I have created gardens in almost every spot on the land we have. Luckily, we live on a corner where I have even begun gardening on the parkway.
There is something about hands in dirt, and taking a “blank canvas” and creating something tangible (and hopefully beautiful) that helps me find peace. I have also begun to paint more recently, mostly dogs. Always having dogs in my life (and three dogs now) also helps me feel grounded, even though they may not help me feel peaceful! I still very occasionally write poetry, and the Live Oak blog is helpful when I feel inspired.
Do you have any favorite quotes or philosophies you live by?
I don’t know that I necessarily live by this quote, but my mother said something to me from the time I was a little boy until she died:
"Life’s too short."
Most of the time, she meant that life is too short to hold on to negativity, to judge, to hold grudges, to hold on to anger. As much as this philosophy can sometimes feel invalidating (like “why can’t I be angry and hold a grudge?!), I also know more and more as I get older, that life is too short. And I don’t want to spend the time I have left on this earth unnecessarily holding onto anything that will detract from my experience of being fully present and alive.
Years into the future, what would you like your students and future therapists to take with them?
This is a very hard question to answer succinctly. What comes to mind at this very moment, is that I hope people will carry with them grace and compassion. I feel like we are living in a world where we judge first and ask questions later. And I think this is a dangerous place for us to be for so many reasons. If all of us—students, future therapists, and fellow humans—are able to first hold compassion for others, and then respond from a place of grace, the world would be a better place.
Thank you for coming…
This interview is from our book Urban Pace: Spaces.