BEHOLDER AND BEHELD

 

 

Scilla is having its moment, and as ever, it mesmerizes me like Ruth Wilcox’s skirt trailing among the flowers and grasses in “Howard’s End.” This photo does it no justice. Blossoms that were electric to my eye are overpowered here by stalks and leaves. Still, if I squint, there’s a hint of Van Gogh’s irises, so that’s something. It’s been raining a lot, and I’ve been reading Patricia DeYoung’s fine book on chronic shame, which she defines and explores in, I think, extraordinarily clear and detailed interpersonal terms. It’s a book written for clinicians, but full of observations that I wish could be wider spread. It’s an especially interesting read for me at this time of quarantine. While many of us are looking forward to being with others again—mingling and enjoying contact—for some, the self-other encounter is one of private chagrin. Healing from shame requires safety, and safety requires attention to connection and disconnection, a commitment to emotional being-with. Perhaps all our current contact through phone calls and screens could be seen as an opportunity to fine-tune our awareness of voices and faces. There’s so much information there—sometimes subtle, but sometimes as vivid as indigo and ultraviolet, hovering above the plainer stems of speech. The more attention we give, the more we perceive.

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HAIL-MARY SWISH

There’s a basketball rim behind the agency that stands several feet below regulation. It’s supported by a plastic base that tends to fill with water, broken glass, and cigarette butts. The court is smaller than your kitchen, unless your kitchen is a galley on a boat; it’s made of brick and weeds and bordered by abandoned patio furniture. Beyond that, the miracle of grass.

It’s good for little but playing H-O-R-S-E, which I’ve done in blazing sun, swarms of gnats, and even cold, though not lately—it’s probably been twelve months or more since I’ve taken clients there. Different clients, different interests. My basketball, bought four years ago for work, sits deflating under the desk where I sit typing copious notes, community mental health’s Sisyphean task.

I don’t miss those outside sessions, which always made me feel like I was in the wrong place, wishing I were in the right one. I’m still working out to this day where exactly that place will prove to be, ultimately. I do sometimes, though, think about a middle school boy I saw early in my employment. He was my first truly mandated client and engaged in selective mutism in protest of his mother’s insistence that he attend therapy. The substance of her concern was his childish behaviors at home. I would not be of help, it soon became clear.

Our therapeutic relationship didn’t start strong. The boy complied with an expressive activity straight from a textbook, to choose an animal figure from a jar to represent each member of his family and place them in a constellation of sorts on a labeled paper; but his reasons for choosing each, he kept to himself.

It didn’t finish strong, either; our last visits, as I recall, surpassed mere silence and exceeded recalcitrance to enter territory beyond. While now I might recommend more co-parenting work, at that point on my learning curve, I was advocating to end services, expressing privately to my client’s mom that I would rather he feel supported in his preference than be turned off to therapy for the rest of his life. By then, she and I had had a few one-on-one talks, and I believe the most difficult piece about closing, from her perspective, may have been the loss of someone to hear her own challenges and frustrations with the whole family.

Formal activities work for some kids, but it didn’t take long before my focus shifted, for the duration of the middle phase, to attempting rapport by joining my client in whatever fun could be had. We played War (for the record, the most tedious card game I know) and UNO. There may have been an occasion of popping matchbox cars in a wordless contest; that’s a bit foggy now. Sometimes we went out back to the sorry court described above, clouds passing overhead. I had the idea that if I could impress him with my hoop-shooting skills, the energy of our visits overall might shift. Well, you already know that didn’t happen. But there was one glorious afternoon that lives in my memory…

His younger brother had come along that day, and the decision was made to head for the grass with a small finned foam football that was meant to have good spin, though not when thrown by my hands. My client was animated with unusual verve, in the role of leader. He talked! Mostly to his brother, but still! In a spirit of inspiration and delight, I proposed rules. Instead of just passing and catching or fumbling, whoever dropped the ball would run prescribed laps and then throw the football through the basketball hoop. If a basket was made, play could resume. If not, more laps.

He wasn’t just game, he showed gusto, and the three of us ran around the broken picnic tables until I literally, if dramatically, fell down panting. I think of that day, and the neon-green torpedo catching net, as my Hail-Mary Swish. I gave it my all, and my all was both grounded and free. If my client remembers anything from our time together—ancient history now, in kid years—I hope that’s it. We salvaged something, I think, however small. Not in that case, but in the very best cases, salvage can be salvation.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

 

 

IN PRAISE OF SUNLIGHT AND ESPRESSO

 

 

The conscious practice of gratitude sometimes needs a little help. Throughout the dark and rainy weeks of mid- and late Fall, it was the promise of an en-route espresso that motivated me out of bed when nothing else did. If I could make time to stop for that, I would have five minutes, maybe ten, that I knew I could savor. You see, I’ve come to dread my job. I hate typing this here, with such finality, in a space I’d consecrated for inspiration. I care as much as ever about my clients, and feel their faces and voices and stories intertwined with my own. But before, between, and after client visits, I’m in agony to leave and be done. A bureaucratic setting is not for me; I need to work for myself. And, importantly, I need to write. I dream the plots of stories—characters and predicaments that I want to see on the page. I hate typing this, too, in a way, because it gives me such a concrete challenge, one that others might hold me accountable to. What if I don’t have what it takes? To which I answer myself—and you, if you hold similar doubts—joy, heart-throbbing joy, is always worth the risk. I hope to keep reflecting on my tenure in community mental health; there is so much to say. I rely on 2019, however, to be a year of change.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and as always, I’d love to reach more. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage! Thank you for your visit—and all good things in 2019!