There is a story here—but one, as yet, with no words.
A significant part of working with children involves working with family systems, and in community mental health, that often means contending with inter-generational trauma. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the reality of that; I, under excellent supervision, expend a lot of mental energy trying to factor caregivers’ own personal issues into their choices with kids, adapting my message to what they can hear and take in at any given time. After all, if caregivers feel criticized, the likelihood of their support for therapy drops significantly, and change is unlikely to happen. Sometimes that means trading no change at all for painful slivers of increments. And sometimes, let me tell you, that trade becomes deeply sad and demoralizing. Like this month. Like this in-like-a-lion-and-the-lion-keeps-roaring March. I’m feeling spent by the effort of starting over every bloody session, and I just want to be mad and let it out. Indulge me?
If you are caring for a child who was born in withdrawal from drugs, abandoned, passed around, and abused in every possible way, and as a result lacks a sense of appropriateness and has a bottomless need for attention, please observe the following don’ts, in no particular order:
Don’t refuse to tuck her in because she hasn’t made her bed. Don’t deny her a birthday because you don’t like her behavior. Don’t send her to her room when she’s having a meltdown; don’t film her while she melts down further, desperate not to be rejected and alone. Don’t show the video to people and shame her. Don’t show the video to a therapist and expect sympathy for YOU, the person impassively holding your smartphone up while her struggle plays out. Don’t claim you’ve tried everything, because you haven’t if you haven’t rocked and cuddled her. Don’t expect her to act her age when that’s developmentally impossible. Don’t automatically take others’ word against hers, every time, not even teachers’; teachers see a lot, but not everything, and they aren’t always right. Don’t condemn her for craving electronics when you yourself bury your head in “Candy Crush” and other less important things when she’s trying to make eye contact with you. Don’t justify that by saying that she always wants attention. Don’t reject the games she likes to play with you. And speaking of games, don’t show mercy to other players but gloat (“Ha-ha!”) when you get her out, thinking you’re teaching her a lesson about fair play because, you say, that’s something she’s done. Don’t tell her it serves her right if she falls because she sat on a chair the wrong way. Don’t tell her she can’t have friends because she doesn’t know how to behave. Don’t tell her teachers, in front of her, that she’ll try to manipulate their sympathy. Don’t say, “We love you, but.” Don’t say you’re thinking you might not be able to keep her. Don’t say 100 no’s for every yes. Don’t miss every single chance to validate what she’s feeling, even when her therapist has explained quite clearly, with relatable examples, that validation isn’t agreement. Don’t take her to therapy, an hour a week, no matter for how many years, and expect the therapist to undo the damage of life in an unloving home. Don’t blame the therapist for failing, when the therapist is working hard to help the child feel like she matters. Don’t tell the child in your care that your life is shitty because you’re caring for her.
Sympathetic readers might appreciate the haunting song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” by Neko Case. Thank you, Neko Case, for your vision and your songs. // I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and in 2018, 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.
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. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you wholeheartedly for reading.
We were walking together alongside the building when he veered away from me to climb the perimeter of an unused loading dock. He had done that before, on another walk, and appeared cheerfully confident of my discomfort as he placed one foot before the other on the concrete edge, tightrope-style. Dismissing my worries about his safety, he compared me to his granny, who was his guardian and whom he described as “your standard, everyday grandmother.”
Well, I didn’t correct him on that point; for a kid with his background, being able to take a caregiver for granted is a hard-won luxury. However, I can tell you, she was anything but ordinary. For one thing, she was actually his great-grandmother; her early life unfolded against a backdrop of WWII, yet she was still working full-time and ferrying kids to after-school activities when I started seeing them.
Before she obtained custody, she drove to Jason’s house each day—never knowing what she would find—to take him to school. Without her, he wouldn’t have gotten there, neglected among adults whose lives were given over to pills and needles. Now she was raising him. On a rainy afternoon, as she and I were chatting, I glanced down and noticed matching holes, big as silver dollars, worn into the top of each shoe; she laughed as she admitted she was too busy to try on new ones.
It’s thanks in no small part to her, I’m thinking, that Jason was able to hold his own in the world. His bravado on the loading dock notwithstanding, he had at least one quotidian fear that could send him into a panic. Perhaps that’s why it was tempting for him to show off a bit of fearlessness with me—it was probably empowering for him to scare me in that little way.
Someone had given him a pen that wrote in invisible ink. He brought it to show me once, and was writing secret hieroglyphs on the waiting room walls when I walked out to greet him. They would only be visible in purple light, he said. I think about that, and I think about his history, which he wasn’t inclined or equipped to discuss. Hopefully that exploration would happen one day. So much of our lives are written in invisible ink; it takes the right kind of light, shone in the right places, to reveal what is hidden in plain sight. At its best, counseling can shine a soft violet beam—which is, in fact, a careful reflection of a client’s own light.
Late November is meant, in my part of the world, to be a season of gratitude. This year I feel grateful on Jason’s behalf for the care I saw him receive—for the memory of his great-grandmother’s hand ruffling his red hair as she said, when I asked how his week had been, “He’s a good boy.” And I’m grateful for the invisible heart he drew on my hand. Despite innumerable washings since, it’s still there.
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. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. 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. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!
Frank was twelve, and living with grandparents for the reason now so common here: his parents got caught up in drugs and abandoned him. He had a roof over his head when I met him, but still lacked nurturing. One grandparent was an alcoholic whose next bender would crash the family car; the other was a chainsmoker forced to drag an oxygen tank with her everywhere she went. She dragged it into my office, where she proceeded to carp and nag and bicker Frank into oblivion. No wonder his posture had become a slow slink off the chair toward the floor.
Caregivers can be the unwitting designers of psychological stress tests, their children the unfortunate test subjects. Frank’s grandmother had a habit of saying “No” that was so deeply entrenched, I seriously heard her once contradict Frank on whether the sun was shining. The acts of defiance for which he was brought to counseling swiftly came to seem to me like logical expressions of resistance, little signs of patriotic loyalty to his own nascent self. Did they make life harder for her? I’m certain they did. I’m equally certain things weren’t, at bottom, his fault.
When Frank and I spent time alone together, the handful of times they came in, I made it my business to say yes as often as possible, to affirm his playful nature by playing back. Silliness came easily because I felt I could see it nourishing him; even though I believe in the value of play, it’s harder for me to be silly when I don’t feel connected to the deeper reward, just as it’s hard for me in my personal life to make small talk unless I know Big Talk is also an option.
Late one afternoon, Frank threw himself to the carpet. I remember it being dark outside, so we must have hit Daylight Savings, that cold plunge. I don’t why, but instead of telling me about his day, he began calling out the names of fruit: “Apple! Pineapple!” So I also lay down on the carpet, at the little distance my office allowed, and began repeating after him. When he came to “Banana!” he exclaimed it while “jumping” a little, as if popping from a cartoon peel. So I did that, too. He did it again. I did it again. Then, in the middle of trading off, I sat up slightly, beat my chest, and said, “Gorilla!” And the game became Gorilla! Banana!
Thrilled by the sweet, spontaneous fun of it all, I later described the scene to a coworker at my night job. “Sounds like a drinking game,” was his reply. Which sums up quite a lot about quite a lot, including why I write. I need a place to bring my enthusiasms and my earnestness. Everyone does.
Another evening, Frank was in a soberer mood. I invited him to color in a heart with a color for each emotion he was feeling and proportional to it. The heart he filled in was one of overwhelming sadness, with cracks in it, but with love at the center. He shared with me a new prognosis for his grandmother’s health. We discussed it, and he decided to show his heart to her when she came in. What do you think she did?
She told him he was lying—lying, about his heart—and ought to own up to the truth, that he was only sad about losing time on his videogames, a consequence imposed for some misbehavior. What good would counseling do, if he was only going to mislead his counselor? He and his sibling had both had services off and on, with various providers and the same essential refrain. I barely got a word in edgewise; she let me get as far as validating her perceptions as such, but then no further. She rejected utterly the notion of his love.
As they left the session and walked down the hall, I called after him softly. He turned. “Gorilla!” I whispered, and beat my chest. He brightened, and popped like a banana in reply. That was a couple years ago. I haven’t seen him since.
Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. 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’d like to put in a plug for Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen, an inspiring book and enjoyable read.*** “The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you for reading!
My appointment with Tess was, unusually, at 9AM—right as the morning sunlight was angling through my prism in the window. “You’re just in time to see my pet rainbows,” I said. (I think of them that way sometimes.)
“Pet rainbows!” She ran over to kneel on the chair and held her finger beneath a hovering splotch of visible spectrum, as though holding aloft a perching butterfly. I leaned in to look with her. “It must like you,” I said.
Fanciful notions flow rather freely from me now; a few years ago, less so. I thought I might like working with kids, but felt shy and apprehensive around them. The world seemed to have changed so much since I was five, six, seven—kids seemed to be exposed to such sophisticated things. Would what had mattered to me at their age even register with them? I volunteered in a kindergarten, to put myself to the test, to see if I could find ways to relate.
One day the teacher left me in charge while she ran some errands around the school. My job as a glorified babysitter was to read Jack and the Beanstalk to the class. I did so with all the gusto I could muster, then found myself at “The End,” with no sign of the teacher returning. Without further direction, I needed to buy time. So I improvised: “Let’s be seeds,” I said. “Let’s make ourselves really small, and then we can grow up up up!”
The children immediately crouched and tucked into themselves. “Sprinkle us!” Gillian cried, and joy bloomed in me. It has continued to bloom and grow through my counseling work. Sometimes I feel as though I could climb to the clouds on its flourishing stalk.
While I like to write in celebration, though, there are umpteen moments when I get things wrong—sometimes so wrong that it’s painful. Like the time I noticed that the clasp of Tess’s necklace had slid ’round to the front. “Make a wish,” I’d said, out of habit.
Tess had been in foster care roughly one year. Her parents had neglected her and her siblings while tending their addictions; her father would die of an overdose within the week of those three words. Make a wish.
I had let myself become ungrounded in my life—busy and neglectful of contemplation. I wasn’t fully in the moment with a little girl who needed every ounce of presence she could get. Now I carry the memory of Tess picking up that remark, which I’d dropped so casually, and holding it close. My sobering summons back to the moment came when she fixed her eyes on me. She trusted me. She asked, “Will it come true?”
Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. 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. Thank you for reading.
She was born addicted to methadone, and her mother kept using, then landed in jail. Her father had his own problems, but he got custody. Now she was a wild-eyed eight-year-old, whip-smart but lacking integration. This was to be our second visit, and I felt from our first meeting, it might turn into tangent upon tangent, attention scattered to the four winds. I wanted a glimpse of her heart.
So I asked her to show it to me, with an expressive art activity. You think of all the different things you’re feeling—either just in that particular moment, or about a given subject—and choose a color to represent each, making a key, as on a map. Then you fill a heart shape with each color, in proportion to how much of that feeling is present in you. It’s a simple exercise that can be quite profound for people of all ages. I used kid-friendly language to describe it.
As I said, she was plenty smart, but she just looked at me. “Is this too complicated?” I asked. Affirmative: “Can I just color the heart?” It was a golden opportunity to practice giving up my agenda. As a wise teacher once said in a workshop I took, “Just because it’s valuable, doesn’t mean it’s helpful.” While I watched, she colored the heart with a kind of fan pattern. She looked at it with pride a few moments. Then she drew an extra outline around the heart. Decorative, I thought.
Then she split the outline between blue on the left and purple on the right. She was wearing a “mood ring” she’d just gotten from a dentist’s office, and according to her reading of this ring, purple meant happy and blue meant sad. She wrote the words out adjacent to their territories.
Again, she surveyed her work. She took a red marker and started making arrows all around, pointing inward to the heart. “So no one misses it,” she explained. Next, with shallow breaths of childish concentration, she tried to recall the way a compass looks. North and South she put right where they belonged, but she accidentally swapped East and West.
Oh, well—I wasn’t about to correct her. The drawing of the arrows was the start of a narration, as she talked her way through what she was doing, four yellow directions drawn at the points of a cross. When her compass was done, she looked at me and announced, “We live in the sad part.”
“We do?” I was startled by the revelation, literally “out of the blue.” All I’d seen from her so far, by way of feelings, were the ugly looks she shot her dad and a premature attachment to me.
“Yes, sad,” she said with conviction.
“What makes us sad?” I began fishing for more. “Why are we so sad?”
“Because we live in the sad part.”
I tried again, from the opposite direction. “What could make us happier?”
She grabbed the red marker and made a box around West (aka, East), scribbling furiously to fill it in. “There,” she said.
“What’s that?” I was thinking Love.
“Angry,” she said firmly, as if she heard my thoughts.
“It’s angry. Why is it angry?” I was genuinely puzzled. Then she gave it to me, that glimpse:
“Because angry’s happier than sad.”
Is it just me, or did this girl give voice to the world’s history of crossed signals and missed connections? When sad becomes angry in an effort to be happy, or at least “happier than sad,” East does indeed become West. And if the owner of the feelings doesn’t draw the compass—give the map its key—confusion reigns, and never the twain shall meet.
She wanted to hang the drawing on my art clothesline, and she chose the spot. Then she requested that I point it out to anyone else who came in, forever after. Writing this short essay is the best way I know how. I feel as though that experience now will never be far from my thoughts.
The high windows were blank rectangles of daylight as the gym teacher handed down tough love. Nothing extraordinary had happened: A dimpled kindergartner had let his high spirits run free, during a non-running game. He then slipped on the smooth gym floor, fell, and banged his elbow, bringing said game to a halt—and him to tears.
He had broken a rule. No matter that he was in pain and possibly a kind of mild shock; rule-breaking was what counted to this teacher, who seemed to think the boy had gotten his just deserts. His words were chiseled like a commandment on a stone tablet. You know the small graves in cemeteries, the kind that tug at your heart? A stone tablet like that. “Stop crying,” he said. “I have no sympathy for you.” Mortal words, to my ears.
When I say the student might’ve been in shock, I mean the physical jarring when a body makes impact and the existential betrayal we feel when the world unexpectedly hurts us. For adults, the cause and effect might have been clear in this case, making the hurt smart less than it did for that boy; but children have less experience of physical laws and probabilities than do we adults. To run from sheer exuberance is to feel a great trust in life, if only in the moment; for many if not all of us, there is nothing reasonable about a fall.
I’m reminded of a scene in a drug treatment facility. It’s process group, a daily meeting that is minimally moderated by a counselor, and is a time and place for peers in the program to air their personal challenges, as well as any grievances with each other. One young man rubbed other group members the wrong way; he had a tendency to urge them to open up and share more of themselves. The week prior things had ignited when an older man forcefully asserted his right to process things in his own way, and essentially told the young man to “cut the therapy shit.” But it became clear—to me, at least—that he wasn’t really trying to play therapist, so much as trying to make the group feel safer to him. The more the other men shared, the more he could.
So, one week later: the young man was sitting in a different seat, and seemed to be buried deep within himself. He was set to graduate, which can be an anxious time. Was he ready for it—for life? The subject of childhood came up, raised by one of the women, and he told a story about a game he played with his mom when she was in the kitchen, wherein he’d mischievously steal scraps of food and she’d lovingly scold him not to eat before dinner. Then his stepfather came in and, oblivious to their play, laid down the law. The young man broke down in the telling, sobbing two decades’ worth. “He beat the fun out of me,” he said. “I don’t know how to feel joy.” Even while he was crying, his jaw was clenching, muscles working, trying to hold back the tears.
I’m not meaning to equate the first scenario with the second—a one-time incident of punitive dispassion with what would become ongoing abuse—but not because small moments don’t matter in big ways. Small moments matter enormously. They are cellular; they constitute us.
* I’ll try to address the subject of compassionate discipline in a future post. Among the good and relevant books there are to consult, I can recommend The Whole-Brain Child, by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen.