In acknowledgment of the New Year, with its unknown challenges and joys, I would like to celebrate the intelligence and resilience of the eleven-year-old girl who was my first-ever client. Over the course of my internship at the elementary school I so loved, she and I would meet during her lunch hour, to sort through the pain in her heart. A natural storyteller, A. for a time needed a full lunch-and-recess on Monday just to talk through things, plus lunch period on Tuesday, when, having already expressed her last week’s store of thoughts, she was able to concentrate on learning and practicing skills. Although I had a set of mindfulness practices that I drew upon, I took my cues from her, and our work was a co-creation.
It was the best possible, richest beginning to this work for me, spending time with that bright girl whose life was shaken by the problems in her family; I left our meetings moved and brimming with hope for her tremendous capacity to recover and grow. Sitting under a picnic table in the fall, we had strikingly metaphysical conversations. Self-aware, she would say things like, “What happens now? I’m carrying so much. I’m carrying things for me, and for everyone else in my family.”
A veterinarian in the making, A. loved animals, but her heartbreak when one or another of the farm’s animals died was amplified by other losses she felt and continued to feel. We talked a lot about love and loss, what happens to love after death—death also symbolizing the other traumatic events of life. Like most of us, her model for dealing with pain was to escape or conquer it somehow. “I just don’t know what I have to do,” she said repeatedly during our second meeting.
Speaking slowly, I proposed that perhaps the “doing” might not be something that would happen on the outside. (Especially for a child, whose fate is largely in others’ hands, developing internal resources can make all the difference. Adults possess the advantage that developing within often leads to appropriate external changes as well; they are better positioned to bring “inside” and “outside” into accord.) “What if what you can do is something that happens on the inside?” It was a starting point at least, and a question that we worked on answering together.
Over time, A. practiced a number of skills with me and on her own. As part of our long and deliberate preparations for saying goodbye, toward the end of my time at the school, I asked A. to summarize her thoughts about each of her skills, how they worked and what made them count as such. As she spoke, I took notes, which I later typed up to put in a book that represented our year’s work. These are those notes, as they appear in her book, reproduced here with her and her father’s permission, granted on a last sunny day at the picnic table, in late spring.
(13 of) A’S SKILLS
1. Ranking your day on a scale of 1 (terrible) to 5 (great)
This is helpful in measuring the stress you have to lose and the happiness you have to gain.
2. Body scan
This helps you identify which parts of you are most stressed, like taking your temperature: red = stress, blue = happiness. EA: I would add that when you know where your stress is in your body, you can work on releasing it, with stretching, deep breathing, massage, and other techniques.
3. Using your senses
This is helpful as a way of not focusing on bad things, but instead paying attention to what can soothe and comfort you. It helps you see what there is in nature that can help. EA: I love these thoughts. Using your senses is also a way to enjoy and appreciate just being alive.
4. Talking to your bad dreams
This relieves stress! You know your dreams aren’t going to hurt you because you’re talking to them. It makes you braver because you stood up to something that terrified you. It builds your confidence. EA: It was pretty wonderful how you took care of the bad dream about the bear.
5. Setting goals
This is really good to do. A lot of goals can help your future. It’s especially good to do when you’re stressed because it helps break things down into smaller parts that you can more easily manage. EA: You are an expert goal-setter, A.
6. Breathing deeply
It helps you just to concentrate on your breathing. After you take deep breaths, it’s easier to organize your thoughts. Breathing deeply makes you peaceful and satisfies you. EA: I really should have made this #1. I hope you’ll always remember the benefits of this!
7. Saying what’s true for you
Doing this helps keep things on topic. The person you’re talking to may see things differently. Saying what’s true for you can help you talk and solve problems; not saying the truth, on the other hand, can get you off track and might make things worse. EA: 100 percent, yes!
8. Mindful eating
Basically, this is a lot like breathing deeply. It helps you concentrate: on the texture, on the combination of flavors. You never know what flavor might come next. What it’s like to eat something can be different from person to person because they have different taste buds.
9. Imagining the invisible backpack
This helps you figure out what you’re struggling to get rid of, what stress you don’t need, what you can use or transform. It helps you balance your stress. Packing well helps keep you on your path. You can imagine you’re climbing a mountain. You need to pack your courage to go on; courage needs to be in your backpack to help you past the scary caves (nightmares) and pointy rocks (like losing an animal you love). When you get to the top of the mountain, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all your stress is gone, but you know you can control it.
10. Keeping a journal
Every time you write a word, a death-rock from the stress mountain is removed. It really helps, explaining yourself through paper. EA: Even if you don’t have time to write a lot, you can use a journal to write down your gratitudes (#13). It’s a nice way to begin and/or end a day.
This lets you balance your stress with positive things. You rest your whole body. It’s a lot about focusing, same as with the deep breathing, where you just think of that one thing. EA: And as with most good habits, the benefits continue to grow and flower over time, like a beautiful tree.
12. Drawing the ecomap*
When you draw an ecomap, you show yourself. In your head, the picture isn’t so clear. Putting it on paper helps to show what could be causing (or helping) the stress, and where you can go when it’s happening. You go to the people or things that are higher (closer to you) on your map.
13. “The three gratitudes”
This helps you to remember what you’re thankful for and what makes your life special. When you know what’s important to you, you also know the things that can help you. Maybe not with a big emergency, but with your stress on a bad day. EA: See #10! I would also add that being someone who practices gratitude can indeed help in times of emergency.
*An ecomap can be defined and depicted in several ways, but is essentially a visual representation of the constellation of people, pets, hobbies, etc., that constitute our significant others, whether at a given moment in time or more enduringly.