THE SYLPH AND THE SKY

 

When I accepted a job with a mental health agency, I had to give up the luxury, formerly afforded me, of a walking commute. I’m not someone who hates driving, but an hour a day, five days a week, is much more than I’m inclined to enjoy, especially considering environmental impacts.

Even so, I continue to feel grateful because, rather than strip malls and billboards, my route is lined with trees, a mountain view in one direction, big skies in the other. What a difference that has surely made, in the last three years, to my resilience.

I was sitting not long ago with a young teen girl. She was showing me art with a fantasy theme, scrolling through an album she had made on her phone. There were mermaids, griffins, fairies, elves, centaurs, etc, rendered in exquisite detail: manes and feathers and tails and wings.

Resting my arms on the kid-sized table in my office, I leaned in to admire each picture she shared and listen to her commentary. She was telling me in an offhand way that this was her art; she said she’d been busy all week with the drawing. “This is one of my favorites.” “This one was hard to get just right.” At one point, she swiped to a kneeling angel with double wings. “Hmm,” she said to me, with what I perceived as embarrassment, “I’m not sure why I made her naked—but you can’t see anything, so…”

She was showing me art she’d found online. I knew that, but I didn’t challenge her, just murmured admiration. And I didn’t question that choice, just noticed it, and noticed that it felt right, while wondering what various colleagues would do. When the slideshow came to an end, I said, “The world needs more magic, doesn’t it? Like the magic in you.” She fiddled with her phone. Without looking at me, she said, “Probably you say that to everyone.”

“Actually, I don’t,” I said—which is true. After a beat, I added, “Yes, I’m a counselor, and part of my job is seeing the best in people. But I don’t have to lie to do that.” She was quiet. Then she expressed interest in making art with me. As she drew, she sought to maintain her deception with remarks like, “I’m feeling too lazy to fix the nose.” “I guess I’ll leave the leg like that for now.”

My drawing, meanwhile, was abstract. I began with my non-dominant hand, a handy trick I was once taught, to quiet the critical voice, and delineated an oblong shape, with some internal contouring, vaguely resembling a seed, a flying saucer, or a cross-sectioned hard-boiled egg. Then I reached for the crayons and colored pencils.

“What are you making?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m just having fun.”

Soon her paper turned over, and she, too, began making a more abstract design, scallop upon scallop. She told me, when she had finished, that it was a mermaid’s tail. And a thing of beauty it was.

I thought about her on my drive home, and our time together. Her observations of the pictures she showed me were often poetic, which is a gift of hers. A sylph perching on a mountain ledge and gazing at the sky was “trying to understand the clouds.”

Lately I’ve been leaving the radio off for the day’s-end commute. I open the windows enough for fresh air, not so much that I’m buffeted. The air rushing past fills my ears in a pleasant way, and I feel any tension in my face relax.

This girl, my client, made a meaningful choice. Really, more fabrication than deception. I believe she wants to possess the skill that she admires, to have a direct connection to a world of possibilities much grander and more colorful than she perceives in her actual life. Given what I know of that life, why would I seek to take such a dream from her? Like an imaginary friend, it will fade when she has no further need of it.

Sometimes the clouds take strange shapes. That evening, it was as if an enormous, thick, soft anvil rose up from the horizon. I drove toward it, trying to understand it.

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How is it the end of August already? 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. Thank you, and warm regards.

 

WORK-LIFE RESONANCE

 

I recently sat in on my first Aikido class. Afterward, I was pleased to tell acquaintances that I now know how to throw a grown man to the ground. That was just silly bravado for my own amusement, however, and not at all reflective of the discipline. What you learn in Aikido, as the sensei put it, is how to help someone fall.

That concept speaks to my sense of the work I do.

Vulnerability tops nobody’s list of favorite mammalian sensations; certainly it doesn’t top my own. For me, the experience of vulnerability can evoke fight, flight, and freeze simultaneously, an anti-trifecta. So I empathize with those who are ambivalent about therapy, instinctively resistant to the deeper conversations.

My faith in the depths is firm; my compass points inward. But the “fall” into therapy has to be taken with great care and companionship, and one of the best ways to achieve that—in addition to active listening and the sensitive use of silence—is through reflective statements. Not a flurry of questions, chop-chop-chop like karate. Minimal use of questions, maximal use of restatement, summary, and gentle extrapolation, always open to correction.

This approach is beautifully described and detailed in Miller and Rollnick’s Motivational Interviewing, one of the most inspiring texts of my education. MI is the Aikido of therapy! It’s rewarding to work in such an intentional way, to assist the fall—and the standing back up.

I was sitting with a traumatized tween girl on the floor in my office. Her chaotic life experiences were poignantly evoked by the careful way she organized my dollhouse, visit after visit, arranging everything just so. One particular afternoon, she was highly escalated from the car ride to the appointment; she had shared information about her trauma with her mother, and her mother had gotten angry.

My dollhouse is an eco-friendly Scandinavian wooden “chalet” that can be separated into two parts. For the first time, the girl separated them and set one part off at a distance: “This needs to be its own house.” Sometimes that’s what’s needed, I said.

She described to me the conversation in the car as she worked on one house. I continued to reflect and validate what I heard her say. After a while, I asked her permission to share a thought I had. She granted it, and I proposed that her mother may have been too upset to give her the response she needed, but that we could try again to talk all three together when things were calmer.

She reached for the “other” house, saying, “I guess this actually belongs here,” and put them back together again, making a new space of the whole. And she started, for the first time, to tell me the story of her trauma, using the dolls and furniture as props to her narration. When her mother joined us, they were calm together. The work continued, and the work began.

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Monday I had my four-year anniversary with this site! 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. Thank you, and best wishes.

 

IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS

 

 

Thank you for being my client.

 

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The month has gotten away from me, so I’ll just slip this photo in under the wire and keep writing for next month. 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. Thank you, and best wishes.

 

ALL THAT GLITTERS IS NOT GOLD

Like a human cousin of the Corvid family, I was once upon a time a child who loved anything that sparkled. Mica, tinsel, brooches on ladies’ coats. I played an angel in my second grade holiday pageant, and the gilded poster-board wings hung in my closet until after I had graduated college, when my mom tactfully asked if I wanted to keep them.

I’ve got three hunks of pyrite at home that say I haven’t entirely outgrown scintillation; but I newly hate glitter. It contributes to the microplastics polluting the planet’s water and species. Many in the profession of Youth & Family Therapy espouse the making of glitter bottles as coping tools, and until recently, I was more repelled by the larger, more obvious plastic involved. Now it’s the razzle-dazzle that concerns me most. It’s the bellies of seabirds and fish that matter to me. Our health isn’t separate from theirs.

I know what it’s like to grow up in tight financial circumstances and feel a fervent longing for anything that seems to bespeak prosperity and success. I still feel some reflexive awe when recalling a cardboard crown with convincing paper gems that I could glue on where I chose. I remember the power of certain aspirational goods: name-brand sneakers, clothing, toys, and even snacks.

One of the harder parts of my job, though, is swallowing my environmental dismay to meet kids where they’re at, including acknowledging their sadness and/or excitement over things all too likely made by other kids halfway around the world. My concern is—has to be—the emotional hunger that makes conspicuous consumption so much more appealing. But sometimes I feel, as I listen, an ache for the larger world, of which my lead-free, plastic-free, glitter-free office is just one, infinitesimal part.

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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. Thank you, and best wishes.

 

 

 

THE NUMBERS GAME, PART TWO (OR, MY SO-CALLED THERAPEUTIC LIFE)

One of the many challenging aspects of working in community mental health is that you are, de facto, expected to practice as a generalist. In Youth & Family work, this means taking any client between preschool and 21, with pretty much any kind of issue. It doesn’t matter if you have little to no training or skill with a particular developmental age or diagnostic picture. You learn as you go, or not. At least within the session itself, your clients sink or swim with you; elsewhere, other factors can and often do play the determining role in outcomes.

Of course, any profession will involve on-the-job learning. Still, upon reflection, does working without expertise or even affinity, in some highly sensitive cases, seem therapeutic? We have supervision, but not in vivo; we have training opportunities, but not often or intensively enough. As regards this lack of choice, I’m reminded of an obnoxious rhyme I heard while volunteering in a kindergarten, summoned on such occasions as the passing out of birthday lollipops: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” Yes, in fact, you do get upset! And clients may get upset—rightly so, if they’re not adequately helped where such help might be possible but wasn’t in the roll of the dice. A prohibition against feelings and preferences helps exactly no one.

But back to generalist practice. Let’s say I have a caseload of 25 (again, as mentioned before, that’s on the most absurdly, luxuriously modest end of the community mental health spectrum). Let’s say the work week begins, and maybe I get lucky with an easy sort of Monday, six clients back-to-back but all doing relatively well. I may leave work feeling buoyant and thinking, optimistically, “It’s time I got around to reading more about blended families!” But then I remember that I started a book, some time back, on post-traumatic play, which is still relevant and likely ought to take priority. I decide that I should focus on that.

Tuesday, though, is rougher and brings fresh urgency to the need to research conflict resolution and nonviolent communication, to provide a distillation of resources to a weary and worried single parent who is hungry to learn how to talk to her teenage son before he slips away from her care and into a life of delinquency; she wants more than the basic guidelines I’ve already offered. I plan to assemble some things in the morning… Wednesday finds me, however, scrambling to photocopy materials on fight-flight-freeze and executive function, in order to best and most clearly explain brain processes to some guardians at their wit’s end and contemplating giving up a child, already abandoned multiple times, to the custody of the state. Her fate isn’t in my hands, but my success with the guardians feels as important as if it were.

Then Thursday? Thursday brings a mandated client who would probably rather chew glass or walk across hot coals than engage in therapy. I’m often successful building rapport in such cases, and even look forward to them, but this one’s giving me a run for my money, and my thoughts turn, yearning, to the book on motivational interviewing that I love but never have time to reread from beginning to end. Friday, my lightest day, nonetheless may remind me that if I had more expressive activities up my sleeve, I might better assist a boy in foster care who appears to lack the words for what he may feel.

I have hesitated over the subtitle, “My So-Called Therapeutic Life,” because to some extent it feels self-indulgent. First of all, yes, these are first-world problems. Second, I’ve had some truly amazing therapeutic experiences, and have been in awe of many of my clients and the challenges they overcome. I’m grateful for the chance I’ve had to start where I started and do the work that I’ve done. But I decided to include the subtitle because, as my colleagues and anyone who has ever worked in an agency all seem to agree, the pressures are such that there is little sense of grounded, focused, therapeutic practice. To summon the energy to try and create that experience for clients from hour to hour, can be exhausting and sometimes unrealistic.

I love reading. I love learning. I love doing good work. But, as it happens, I couldn’t live much better than hand-to-mouth on what I’m paid, in the part of the country where I currently live, and the stress of that is too much for me. So, when I leave my agency, it’s not to go home and read, but to race to another job, where I spend evenings and weekends. I average 65 hours a week, and it’s sometimes been up to 80. Additionally, in this milieu, we are buried in avalanches of paperwork, so I’m often working from home to try, in vain, to catch up. When I have free time, which is rare, I almost don’t know what to do with myself, despite a healthy number of outside interests. But I’ll tell you this: lately I spend most spare minutes dreaming of the day when I can leave my job(s) and start living another, more fulfilling kind of therapeutic life: one in which I can rest, nourish my spirit, and educate myself to better serve clients who are not stuck with me by lottery, but who elect to see me week by week. A life, for me and for clients, of choosing and making.

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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. Thank you, and best wishes for (finally!) Spring.

DON’TS AND DON’TS

 

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.

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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.

USE WORDS.

 

So I work with kids. I work with people who work with kids. In my free time, I read books about working with kids. I don’t, however, always drink the Kool-Aid. For example…

There are few phrases I find more inherently condescending than “Use your words.” This expression, all too common in English, is intended as a prompt to children to choose prosocial ways to communicate their wants and needs. At the best of times (which is by no means all the time) I think it’s meant to be empowering, a kind of “Go, you!” coaching. Even where the aim is worthy, though, the method makes me wince.

No caregiver enjoys tantrums. Kicking, flailing, screaming, wailing—that’s misery for all concerned, including children themselves. Just as newborns feel safer when swaddled, children are significantly happier when they’re regulated, i.e., in control of themselves.

In community mental health—where so many of the kiddos we see start their lives already burdened with trauma—tantrums can be even scarier, leading to assaults and destruction of property. One little boy I know, in the midst of a recent fit, climbed to the top of a fridge to grab the butcher knife kept there and threaten his family.

When children have facility with words, not only are they better able to make themselves understood by others, but they are also better equipped to make sense of events and form lasting memories. Thus the importance of reading to and with children, and talking over events both before they take place (in preparation) and after (to create narratives).

It has been demonstrated through studies that children from variously disadvantaged backgrounds typically hear far fewer words a day than their more secure counterparts—yet another way that inequality is perpetuated, making social strata more difficult for some to climb. Literacy programs seek to work against that pernicious trend.

“Use your words” is meant to work against the trend of tantrums, storms of tears, sullen silences. Does it? I haven’t seen the evidence. I know I have a contrary, independent streak and tend to want to kick over any traces that harness me to someone else’s direction or notion of labor; but from my perspective, the expression feels more like an impatient, insensitive dictum from on high than like a loving and truly attuned and listening encouragement.

Anything can be co-opted; but think of the ease with which grown people say “Use your words” to one another, with the explicit intent of being snide. If I were still a child, I wouldn’t have the words to say how I felt about hearing that from an adult, but I know it would make me feel as though the person speaking were asserting an unwelcome and invasive authority over me. How do you know what words are my words? What does it mean that you know, when I apparently don’t?

Another way to think about it is that in saying “Use your words,” the adult is often (and often unknowingly) simply outsourcing the hard work of relating, to the person least qualified to do it. “Use your words, as I wash my hands of this.” If words themselves are the point, why not just leave it at that? Would that not suffice as a reminder? “Use words” says much better, “Remember there’s a tool at your disposal.” Adding that possessive pronoun just raises questions about what the hell is meant, and who really owns what.

From a neuroscientific perspective, a child in a tantrum state or weeping fit needs first and foremost to calm down physiologically; the brain is not capable of cool reason and logic in a heated HPA cascade. And the way to calm a child is to love that child in ways the child can feel—to be patient; to touch if touch is welcome (or required for safety) and give near and supportive space if it is not; to offer sympathy for the strong emotions, via reflective statements. Not only does this demonstrate concern, but it models the exact behavior that’s desired: the positive use of words to communicate during a difficult time. When adults use their own words in prosocial ways, children are more likely to do the same.

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Two excellent resources on working effectively with children are The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. I can’t recommend them enough!

Now: 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!