Hygienists route to social work focuses on life-long commitment to education

June 1, 1998
If the profile of a social worker specializing in domestic violence were to include being a woman with a strong sense of who she is, the ability to ask for what she wants and needs in a relationship and the innate instincts of a survivor, then Mari-Ann Gaynes has what it takes.

Judith E. Sulik, RDH

If the profile of a social worker specializing in domestic violence were to include being a woman with a strong sense of who she is, the ability to ask for what she wants and needs in a relationship and the innate instincts of a survivor, then Mari-Ann Gaynes has what it takes.

Gaynes became a dental hygienist in 1982, but her route to the profession was a bit unusual. She started out as a lab technician in 1964, but by the late 1970s, she was looking for a new career. She said she chose dental hygiene "because I wanted an area of medical science that didn`t require extensive math, but did have a lot of interaction with patients."

Dental hygiene clearly fit that requirement. There was one problem, however; the Chicago native was living with her husband and two daughters, then ages six and nine, in Reading, Pa. All of the colleges were an hour away in Philadelphia.

What happened next helps to explain why Gaynes ultimately became a therapist. As she recalls it, "I was being interviewed by the director of the Community College of Philadelphia`s dental hygiene program when she said to me, `Of course, you`re going to move to Philadelphia for the two years of the program?` " After hesitating only slightly, Gaynes answered yes.

Upon returning to Reading, Gaynes then explained to her husband and children what she had decided. She says now that decision was possibly one of the wisest she and her husband ever made. She said, "We were having some difficulty in our marriage and the two years of living separately, together with counseling, saved it. We`d see each other on weekends, he`d surprise me during the week and it was like being on a honeymoon. My husband took care of all of the child-care arrangements. We`ve now been married 31 years, and the last 15 have been incredibly happy years." She admits that, even now, both men and women are incredulous when she tells them the story.

Taking a studio apartment across from the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, which shared its faculty with the community college at the time, Gaynes successfully completed the program. On the day after her written boards, but before she`d taken her clinicals, her husband accepted a job in Connecticut. She said, "For a time there, I was living in Philadelphia, my husband was living in a boarding house in Connecticut and my daughters were finishing up in Reading. After moving six times in 10 years - and always for my husband`s job - I said Connecticut will be it and we`ve been here for 15 years now."

But while Gaynes may have stayed put physically, she hasn`t educationally. In fact, she believes that the accumulation of education, both life-experience education and academic, is the most self-defining action anyone can take. Following that belief, she quickly began working on her bachelor`s degree while working as a dental hygienist for a periodontist.

One of the first courses she took was in counseling, and she was hooked from the start. She completed her degree through New Hampshire College`s extension program in New Haven, Connecticut. The classes were intensive weekend sessions. By now, she had decided that a bachelor`s degree wasn`t going to be enough and she had started to apply to graduate schools.

Then, unexpectedly, her plans changed. "The very next day after I earned my bachelor`s degree, I had an aneurysm." Gaynes says this calmly, but the depth of emotion and shock still is apparent. She thinks that she pushed herself so hard that this latent genetic condition just exploded. Fortunately, she was with her husband when it happened, and he rushed her to the hospital where she eventually underwent surgery. Before surgery, she had him vow that no one else would raise their daughters ... and she was determined to walk out of the hospital alone.

She had started a new dental hygiene position just two months earlier, but she understood when she was terminated. "I spent four months recuperating from the surgery," she explained. "I saw double for two months. I knew my body was telling me to slow down. I was 41 years old. An experience like this changes your attitude toward life; it puts things in perspective."

When her recuperation was complete, she began working toward her master`s in social work at Yeshiva University Wurzweiler School of Social Work. She commuted to New York City for classes and did her first-year internship at Greater New Haven Family Services, where she did general counseling. She interned her second year in the abortion unit at Yale New Haven Hospital. In 1990, she accepted her first social-work position at a Meriden, Conn., family clinic.

In 1995, when a position opened up closer to home at a health clinic, she applied. The position of domestic-violence coordinator became available there three months after she was hired. She said that while she didn`t choose that specialty, she feels special gratification counseling in this area. She also sees similarities between practicing dental hygiene and counseling. She says it doesn`t matter if the change in behavior is great or small. She offers a dental hygiene experience as an example of what she means.

Gaynes describes a man who was a patient for two years, but who absolutely refused to brush his teeth! "One day," she relates, "he asked me if he could have my broken sharpening stone. This man was a piano refinisher. I told him that I would make him a deal: if he agreed to brush and floss his teeth, I would give him the stone. I suggested that he keep his teeth as nice and care for them as attentively as he takes care of the pianos. Something about that suggestion clicked with what he thought was important and he started brushing. It`s the same thing with counseling."

Gaynes now is in the process of establishing a private practice in partnership with an addiction counselor. It would seem that given her own history, the probability that she?ll achieve whatever goals she sets for herself are high. She describes her life as an odyssey, one that continues to take her to new destinations. About education, she says, OMy educational accomplishments gave me the ability to have something that was my own. I needed the education to say, OHey, look at me!? That?s something too many people, especially women, still are waiting to be able to say.O

Judith E. Sulik, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH, based in Bridgeport, Conn. She just finished writing her second cookbook, No sink? No counters? No problem! Interested readers can inquire about the Oone-potO recipes featured in cookbook by contacting Finely Finished Press, 60 Acton Road, Bridgeport, CT 06606; the cookbook costs $7.95.

11 questions to ask about men

Domestic violence is an ugly secret for too many people. While some men are victims, Mari-Ann Gaynes concurs that the overwhelming majority are women. According to Gavin de Becker, the author of Gift of Fear, every two hours, a woman in the United States will be killed by her husband or boyfriend.

Statistically speaking, it`s not impossible that some dental hygiene patients may be victims. Just as statistically possible, some readers of this article may be in violent or emotionally abusive situations, either at home or at work. Or, they may have daughters whose partners may seem to be abusive. A good deal of Gaynes` work involves anger management. The federal Violence Against Women Act will change domestic violence from a privacy act to a criminal act. If you need help, call the national hotline number at (800) 799-SAFE.

What follows are 11 questions to ask yourself about your husband or boyfriend:

1. Did he grow up in a violent family? People who grow up in families where they are abused as children or where they witnessed abuse as children can become abusive themselves. They have grown up learning that violence is normal behavior.

2. Does he tend to use force or violence to "solve" his problems? A young man who has a criminal record of violence, who gets into fights or who likes to act tough may act the same way with his family. Does he have a quick temper? Does he over-react to little problems and frustrations? Is he destructive when he`s angry? Does he punch walls or throw things when he`s upset? Any of these behaviors may indicate a person who will work out bad feelings with violence. Do not minimize a tendency he may have to damage property or be cruel to animals.

3. Does he abuse alcohol or drugs? Substance abuse and violence are related, but they are not cause and effect. Drinking or drug abuse often is used as an excuse for violent behavior. What this usually means is that he has two problems: (a) substance abuse and (b) violence.

4. Does he treat you roughly? Pushing or grabbing is still physical abuse. Does he physically force you to do what you don`t want to do? Does he use sex as an act of aggression? Abuse during dating is a guarantee of later abuse and more violent abuse; do not think that marriage will change him for the better.

5. Does he think poorly of himself? Does he guard his masculinity by trying to act tough? Does he constantly insult, humiliate and ridicule you to make himself feel better? Does he put down your accomplishments (career, school, weight, etc.) to bolster his own self-esteem?

6. Does he have strong, traditional ideas about male and female roles? Does he think that a woman should stay at home, take care of her husband and follow his wishes and orders? Does he act like women are second-class citizens?

7. Is he possessive and jealous of your friends, relatives and children? Does he restrict where you go, whom you see and what you do? Does he "keep tabs" on you? Does he want you with him at all times, even if it`s inconvenient for you? Does he constantly accuse you of being unfaithful?

8. Does he go through extreme highs and lows, as though he almost is two separate people? Is he extremely kind at one time and extremely cruel at another time?

9. When he gets angry, do you fear him? Do you find that not making him angry has become a major part of your life? Do you do what he wants you to do rather than what you want to do? Are you afraid to break up with him because he might hurt you? Have you changed your life so you won`t make him angry?

10. Does he attempt to control you in obvious and/or very subtle ways? Does he use manipulation and denial to alter reality and make you feel crazy? Does he present himself as a "perfect angel" to friends and family? Does he constantly undermine your actions? Does he threaten to kill himself if he does not get his way?

11. Does he refuse to take responsibility for his actions? Does he blame his violence on alcohol or drugs, stress, unemployment, family problems or his childhood? These are factors, but not excuses. Does he insist that you are to blame for his violence? His use of violence is his choice; you cannot make him violent. Does he believe that his violent behavior should not have negative consequences?

If the answer to some of these questions is yes, your partner is abusive. Please seek advice.

Why are males violent with females?

Research suggests these reasons:

- They learned this behavior in their family. Seventy-five percent of batterers have witnessed their fathers assault their mothers.

- They try to maintain a tough, macho image, reinforced by society and the media.

- They believe it is an appropriate expression of male power and control.

- They have low self-esteem and want their partners to remain dependent on them.

- They know there are few, if any, consequences for violent acts.

Why do women stay in such relationships? According to Gavin de Becker, author of Gift of Fear, women stay in these relationships because of denial. They are choosing not to know something, despite the evidence.