PAPIER-MACHE, IN TWO PARTS

This story starts at my inner-city parochial school, where supplies were so sparse that at one point we were sharing a single box of construction paper amongst grades Pre-K through 8. I can still recall my pride upon being chosen by Mrs. Z to leave my 1st grade classroom and walk down the grand black-tiled hall to request the box from another teacher—head held high in my state of importance, I fervently hoped to be witnessed.

What my school lacked in resources, it made up for amply in spirit, thanks in no small part to the cultural influence of the Spanish-speaking families in our parish. The Sisters who ran things, all Caucasian, embraced those families and honored Our Lady of Guadalupe. Looking back from this distance, in a culturally hostile hour, I admire the welcome offered by administrators who would have first come to know the neighborhood when it was all Polish, before the sugar skulls of the Day of the Dead bedecked the shelves of the shabby nearby bakery. A local woman was brought in to teach us Spanish hymns. Most thrilling were the piñatas.

Preparing for an all-school festival, each class worked together at long tables in the basement, soaking strips of newspaper in gummy flour paste and laying them bubbled and buckling over balloons. Smoothed, dried, painted, and strung up in the school gym—a magical transformation—they bobbed as each member of each class, taking turns, got to leverage one blind-folded swing, until a spill of candy hit the floor.

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The story continues with Cybil, 14, who was hospitalized several times for suicidality before she came to the agency seeking services. I liked her instantly, which made it relatively easy to build the rapport that is crucial with any client, but perhaps especially with teens; she had a mordant wit and a sensitive heart, both of which provided points of connection. One evening early on she interrupted herself and looked up from her mandala, colored pencil poised, and asked, tremulously, “You know I’m not doing this for attention, right?” It was already clear she had heard that accusation many times before.

Thanks to Cybil’s engagement in session and commitment to her therapeutic homework, within several months, she had stopped cutting—then, later, purging. Much of our work, though, still lay ahead. Ahead, and below.

In ways beyond my ken, I’m sure the speculated hard inner core and molten outer core of the Earth make all life possible; but the hard inner core of pain and molten outer core of anger, beneath a crust of scars and mantle of “behaviors,” almost cost Cybil hers. She told me that it wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to talk about things, as that she didn’t know where to start.

Reception at the agency had a vestigial practice of printing visit slips, despite the transition to computerized record-keeping. Several clients were aware, when they turned them over to me, that I put them in a file marked “To Shred.” As she and her mother prepared to leave one night, Cybil handed me hers: “Oh, here, do you want this for your file?”

“Sure,” I replied, “unless you’d like to keep it for yours.”

“I’ll be able to wallpaper my room with them pretty soon.”

Her mother and I exchanged quick looks; she seemed to hear what I did. All that stigma, writ large in Cybil’s life. “Why wallpaper?” asked her mother. “How about papier-mâché?”

“Yes!”—I seized on that. “What about a piñata?” Cybil liked candy, and she deserved a celebration. Transformation for transformation. “You could fill it with sweet things and baubles!”

“I like that,” she said. Her mom agreed.

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THIS ABOVE ALL

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3

 

As the year draws to a close, I find myself thinking a lot about the meaning of integrity. I call to mind those spiral-bound books with split pages that divide cartoon animals in thirds, such that they can be reorganized into mythical beasts: the head of an ostrich on the torso of an ape above the legs of a cheetah. Sure, they might be amusing to contemplate. Yes, they might have strange powers. But they are creatures at odds with themselves. So it is, I think, with those of us whose thoughts/words, feelings/values, and actions don’t align; ultimately our lives aren’t all that they could be. I don’t conceive of integrity as something we possess so much as something we are or strive to become: whole in our human lives.

Now, misalignment, at least in the cultures I know, seems to be the norm. Cogito, ergo sum? Thanks but no thanks, Descartes. I personally do not identify as a brain atop a body. Having said that, my experience of trauma certainly knocked me into disparate parts; trauma does that to people. And it can take courage to contend with that. So I’d like to dedicate this brief, philosophical year-end post to the kids I met in 2015 who, through beautiful insight and determination, came to counseling in search of their own integrity. The young man who looked deeply into my eyes and admitted to beating up his stepfather, triggered by a reminder of his own childhood abuse. The teens who cut themselves and suffered hailstorms of accusations, when they needed love and self-esteem. The little girl who wanted counseling, whose father said to me in her presence, “Counseling is for the simple-minded and the weak”—a girl who had the astonishing inner strength to tell him, simply and directly, she was angry. So many kids, so many stories. And because all grownups have stories, too, and were kids themselves, I dedicate this as well to them—even though I sometimes find them, I’ll admit, unbearable.

Another confession: every time I write, every sentence I write, tempts me to digress. One example in this case might be some reflections on the difficulty of giving and receiving love without integrity as defined above. There is so much to say, about this experience of learning in the present moment! Sometimes I worry about committing myself in writing to this or that idea, when language necessarily imposes limits, whereas my thoughts can feel infinite. And for every thought I have, I hear faint echoes, surging toward me, of things that people might say back, an audible tidal wave of affirmations, negations, opinions, reactions. In short, I get overwhelmed—by myself, by the world. Still, it seems a worthy project, and I look forward to sharing more stories in 2016. Meanwhile, Happy New Year.

Know Thyself.

THEN, SHE NAMED IT

I’ve written about the Tuesday evening when my thirteen-year-old client Shona shared that she had cut with mortal intent, and a little about how I myself was feeling at the time.

This morning the sun is pouring strong through my easterly window, and a prism hanging there is scattering rainbows hither and yon. It’s more than a week into spring and still below freezing, but the sun promises warmth to come. In climatological pockets, pussy-willows have been tricked into fuzzy bloom and perhaps even the friendly spears of crocuses are pushing up from below, where the snow has cleared. It’s a good time to say a few words more about Shona.

The Wednesday morning following the Tuesday in question, I called Shona’s mom to ask how the night had gone. She sounded tired, from waking several times to check on Shona, but also calm. It had not always been so. Anger had dominated this mom’s emotions in the early days of our meeting, along with a feeling of being held hostage to her daughter’s emotional state. What her anger meant to me was that her own feelings were in need of validation as much as her daughter’s, before she could be more empathetic, and that is how we worked.

I asked how Shona was doing, and her mom said she was sleeping, that she hadn’t woken herself early for school as she usually did, and her mom was just letting her stay home to rest. We agreed that I would call Shona later to check in, and when I did, she sounded rested and happy, on her way with her mom to buy ingredients for cupcakes. They would spend the afternoon baking, an activity she enjoys. I encouraged her to call the Center if she felt the need, and hung up feeling hopeful.

The next week Shona came in smiling. She was having a good day. What’s more, she told me that in the past week, “I didn’t cut, and I didn’t feel like cutting.” I was over the moon. That she hadn’t cut and hadn’t even wanted to, and that she said so.

At that point, we were into the fifth month of our counseling relationship, and the whole time she had avoided using any words for her self-harming. As she narrated her thoughts or actions, she would let her voice trail off as she gestured toward her wrists and arms. I didn’t push, but I let her know at one point that I noticed, and at another point I suggested that it’s helpful to speak neutrally and factually about highly charged things, including self-harm. I tried to model such an approach by making unflinching reference to her painful practice. If she said, “This week I felt like…” I would reflect back, without judgment, “You felt like cutting.”

In that follow-up, post-cupcake meeting, I refrained from immediate comment on Shona’s radical use of language. We continued to talk about this and that thing having gone well in her week, and we looked forward together to her upcoming birthday and the start of high school the next year. Only toward the end of our hour did I ask, casually, “So, I noticed that you used the word ‘cutting’ today. I think that’s the first time. Can you tell me about that?” She said, “I used to try to avoid talking about it. But I remember you telling me that I should call it what it is. I caught myself about to not say it, so I said it.”

Now, I hadn’t said “should.” That’s not a word for counseling, and especially not a word to say to someone vulnerable. But it sounded like she may have added her own emphasis to the suggestion, which was fine by me. I was over the moon all over again. The strength of speaking truth! The power of relationship! I’ll have to say goodbye to Shona soon, as my internship at the Center ends, and I’m grateful beyond measure to have first heard her name her challenge. I have every faith that she, especially with her mom’s support, can conquer it.

THE POWER OF PRECEDENCE

I last wrote in a state of devastation that my thirteen-year-old client had reached a point where she’d felt she wanted to die, news that was coincident with a bout of uncertainty on my part about the career path I’ve been on. Before I share a positive development, it seems important to say a little more about that Tuesday evening.

It was my first time seeing Shona after her family’s February vacation abroad, and with the month of March came clinic “housekeeping” of various kinds. There was case management to check in on, and a quarterly review of Shona’s treatment plan. Did she still have the same goals for herself as when we began? Did she and her mom feel that progress had been made? What were our next steps?

From the start, our therapeutic pattern had been that Shona and I would spend the first half-hour or so alone, inviting her mom to join us for the time remaining. It was a pattern that paid heed to two needs: for Shona to have a chance to express herself without inhibition, and for the two of them to have space to strengthen their relationship, grappling with challenges in a safe and supportive environment.

Their work had paid off in a number of ways, from my perspective as observer, and we had had an outwardly positive, productive last visit, when we played with an experiential metaphor following an adventure therapy model. I felt good about where we had left things and was delighted, as always, to greet them in the waiting room. With the exigencies of paperwork in mind, I invited them back together.

The timing of that departure from precedent couldn’t have been worse. Because my attention was, from the first moment of session, divided—respectfully attentive to her mother, who speaks more assertively than Shona—and because there was “business” to see to, I gave insufficient consideration to Shona’s affect, registering that her spirits and energy seemed low but attributing that to the conflicts they described encountering upon their return home from the tropics.

They let me know that Shona had cut again a few days before, and we talked through that: what her trigger had been; whether she had tried other coping strategies and, if so, why they hadn’t worked; how she might move forward from there. We discussed the things that we usually discuss, but again, it wasn’t exactly the same. I neglected to ask the all-important question. Shona, thankfully, answered anyway.

Just as we were standing and confirming for the next week, Shona requested that her mom leave the room. Her mom seemed surprised, but unperturbed. “You want to talk to me alone?” I asked, redundantly. She did. After I escorted her mom out, I returned and focused on Shona. “You know how you always ask me my intent?” she said, without preamble. “This time I wanted to…” and she gestured to her wrists, her sign language for meaning to do real harm.

This moment contained more than words can relay. She would not have shared the difficult truth with me if she didn’t trust me, I know that—and I know that trust is built and sustained largely through reliability, which is a vital aspect of the therapeutic relationship. I am where my clients expect me to be, when they expect it; that simple, symbolic fact means a lot. I ask familiar questions that link each visit. I make myself as steady as I can, so clients can vary and change.

I think what I want to say here is that it doesn’t take long for rituals to root themselves. And unacknowledged changes in rituals can be upsetting, a private disappointment and source of confusion eroding trust in insidious ways. In daily life, this can be hard to address, but good therapy offers an opportunity to get one’s emotional needs met, if only within the bounds of that one relationship—and a good therapist pays attention for signs of those needs.

What do I mean about being steady so clients can change? From a biological perspective, no one is exactly the same from one minute to the next. We are all organic and constantly mortal, constantly a little deeper into our mortality, the conscious or subconscious fact of which can separate as well as unite us. But ritual matters. When I failed our precedent, it showed its strength. When I lacked awareness, Shona expressed herself—she sought the thing that was missing. She demonstrated that she had been actively present for our relationship, and she was courageous with me. In the midst of everything, I thanked her for that.

 

BE THE BUS DRIVER

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.