Last week a client, age 13, let me know that she had cut again, this time with fatal intent. She wasn’t sure why she had been so upset; she stopped because of the blood. The news was devastating for a number of reasons, but I had to set my feelings aside in the moment and focus on her. My feelings could wait—and they did. I drove the hour home filled with longing to be held and comforted.
That she trusted me enough to share what she had done was a good and powerful thing. It was a return on the investment of asking her calmly each week whether she had felt triggered since I had last seen her; whether she had cut; and, if she had, what her intention had been. By remaining calm and using neutral words, I gave my young client permission to speak and language she could and did use. After she and her mother and I contracted for her safety at home, and discussed alternatives, they left and I sat at my computer, dully typing up the notes of our visit.
One of the Level 4 clinicians walked past the open door and paused to check on me. Earlier he had shown me the form to fax to Emergency Services and advised me on the pragmatics. This clinician—whom I’ll call Ben—exudes a natural authority. The kind of person who’s good in a crisis. He encouraged me like a coach would: “You got this.” Then he told me a story, of a woman abused as a child. Her father, who was her abuser, would buy her modish clothes as compensation, which she hated to wear. They reminded her of things she would rather forget.
Ben asked this woman how she got through that time in her life. “The bus driver,” was her surprising answer. Every day she had to get on a bus, and every day the bus driver would—kindly, respectfully—compliment her appearance. This helped her realize that her secret was safe—no one could tell, just from looking at her, what she had been through. Ben concluded the story by saying that we can have a profound effect through simple kindness. “Be the bus driver,” he said.
I believe Ben sought to reassure me of the value of my mere attentive presence for clients—but his concluding remark had another effect. I have recently felt the kind of stress that calls all one’s choices into question. Through the filter of that stress, I heard him say, “You don’t have to be a counselor to make a difference in people’s lives.” Was that a novel concept? No. But his words gave me language to use with myself, as I contemplate the next steps on my path—language, and permission.