GORILLA! BANANA!

 

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.

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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!

 

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 imagined—I hope we three collectively imagined—a jaunty silk scarf tied above her fine nose and wide smile.

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

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please click the “Follow” button, accompanied by a plus-sign, in the lower right corner of your computer screen.

 

 

THE SMARTOVATOR

Fidget toys

 

“I’m making a machine,” Riley said, on our second visit. It was a sunny Tuesday noon hour, and his kindergarten teacher had presumably been glad enough to see him go, given his predilection for throwing furniture when distressed. His mom, fed up with what she perceived as the school’s maladroit interventions, was presumably equally glad to take him out of his classroom and bring him to me. Little did she know how inexpert I felt, with behaviors such as his.

So far I’d seen no physical outbursts from Riley—just an air of self-possession and a serious imagination, which he used to endow himself with every power convenient to his ends. Like his machine: my rectangular wooden fidget toy manipulated into a new configuration, which he pointed at me while declaring, from his mother’s lap, “I’m shrinking you!”

Instinctively, I drew my arms and legs tight to my chest, balancing back on my tailbone, and exclaimed in a pipsqueak voice, “Oh my goodness, what has happened to me? I’ve become so tiny that I’m almost disappearing! Whatever will I do?!

Seeming a little smug—not terribly surprised by his success—he rearranged the toy a second time. “I’ll make you bigger,” he promised slyly. “You’re a GIANT!” I flung my arms and legs out and sprawled all over my chair: “Oh no, this is even worse,” I boomed in my best basso profundo. I saw myself growing too big for the building, soon wearing the roof for a cap.

Growing even faster than me-as-giant was my sense of progress in our play; it, too, was exceeding reasonable bounds, although I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that as weeks became months, my presence in the landscape of Riley’s world would require that I see and hear nothing of his actual life. It was like I was wearing a blindfold, and anytime I made as if to remove it, Riley’s hands would dart up to hold it in place and cover my ears as well. His imagination would come to seem to me as much defense as diversion. But defense against what?

One challenge in working with “conduct” kids is to maintain a therapeutic approach in the face of serious integration problems. How to help a kid fit into the systems around him? To function socially within the culture? I’m reminded of the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The word “socialization” sounds relatively benign, but that hammer tells some hard truths about how it can happen. And the philosophical questions and quandaries about who decides what counts as what—well, they appear endless.

Philosophy aside, though, teachers don’t care to be punched while doing their work, and who can blame them? Furthermore, other students have a right to safety in their school. A therapist can easily feel an urgent pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to help “fix” things ASAP, and a premature sense of success with a child can lead to frustration and impatience further on down the line. Frustration and impatience are common, of course, and can be admitted in the company of sympathetic colleagues. But they have no place in therapy itself.

Q: Instead of using an apparently strong start to measure disappointment thereafter, can I learn to see it as a source for replenishment? A font of inspiration? A reason for hope?

“You better fix her,” Riley’s mom told him, with unintentional irony, as my sprawling reached its awkward limits. “If only you had a normalizer,” I lamented. Riley paused. “I do have a normalizer,” he said, notably setting down the rectangular toy and reaching for the round one. He spun it in his hands and then released me: “Now you’re normal,” he said.

The inventions didn’t end there, though. As his mom tried to fill me in about how things were going with him at home, he interrupted with another incarnation for me: “I’m going to zap you with my smartovator,” he said. “I’ll make you smart like me. I’ll make you think about things like me.”

Briefly but powerfully, I was transported to a cold walk home, late one December night, and a rare conversation with someone important to me. There were years of painful events and much distance between us, but he seemed to evoke a solution: if I could only be him for even a moment, I’d understand things and forgive him. How fervently I wished for such enlightenment! Needless to say, it didn’t come, although the very suggestion at least made it seem possible. We were adults, and might have used words to approach it, given sufficient time and mutual will.

Pulling myself back to the bright space of day, the four white walls around me decorated with children’s art, I found myself unable to enact my new part, even in play. I didn’t know how Riley thought—would that I did. He seemed to sense my limitation almost as fast as I did, and his rescue was, I thought, sensitive. A jumble of colors again, as he swirled the fidget toy: “Now you’re smart like you again.”

That would have to suffice.

 

AND THEN, NOT SO FUNNY

Horses, plants

 

The first thing she did was break my Japanese kaleidoscope—jabbed her finger through the viewing window. From the threshold of my office, she’d homed in on it, as if she’d known it would be there, on my table by the schefflera, awaiting destruction. A pixie with a tornado’s wake, she tore around my office, snatching things up and demanding “What’s this?” before casting them aside and moving on. She was ten, with a three-year-old’s lack of restraint. Her mother did not stir to intervene in any way, just sat heavily and watched me, wearing an inscrutable smile.

I had some information to relay and gather, it being our first visit, although I knew a bit from the intake report and a colleague on the Youth and Family team. The family had been receiving functional support services in their home for some time, to help with behavior management, but the FSS worker felt therapy would be appropriate as well. Danielle, the pixie, was suspicioned to have some trauma in her history. If she did, that might explain her wild energy, although she was being medicated for ADHD, as all too many kids are. The FSS worker had told me she was a sweetheart, if a handful, and would likely want to spend our time playing dolls.

At a certain point, I interrupted my intro to let Danielle know that although there weren’t a lot of rules in my office, there were a few important rules, and one of them had to do with gentleness. “I’m going to show you how I don’t like things to be handled, and how I do like them to be handled.” First, I picked up a toy and threw it on the ground. “You will not see me do that again,” I said, “and I don’t want to see it either. This is how I like things to be handled.” I picked the same toy up and set it down gently. “Can you show me the gentle way to handle things?” And she did—from that moment on, she was careful with everything she touched, and I made sure to thank her and heap praise upon her.

Danielle offered to teach me a card game in vogue called Trash. I accepted, and we arranged ourselves “crisscross applesauce” on the floor. She gave me the rules haphazardly, clarifying as she went along, as in, “Oh, and if that happens, you lose your turn.” It felt as though maybe she was just making up rules to suit her, which, if that was the case, was a) hard to follow, and b) not fun for me. So, again, I asked for what I wanted: “Could you please tell me all the rules first before we play? I’m feeling confused.” And she did! With perfect sense and order! We got on like a house afire then and played cards till the end of our session. I invited her mom to join us, but she just kept smiling and shook her head. Soon enough, our time was up, and I confirmed our next appointment for the same time next week. I was on Cloud 9: attention deficits can be hard for me, but we were off to a good start!

Then, the next week, no Danielle. I made an outreach call and got voicemail. No reply to my message, so I called again later that week, expressing concern. No reply again. I called a week later, then wrote a letter—nothing. Finally, I ran into her FSS worker and asked him to look into it. This is what he came back and told me: the mom didn’t want therapy for her daughter, or at least, not with me. “All she did was play with her,” the mom reportedly said.

Now at the risk of sounding prideful, is that all I did? Danielle and I built rapport. We engaged in behavior modification through clear communication and positive reinforcement. She got the chance to take the lead, and led beautifully, and we started in on addressing unmet needs. (The FSS worker still talks about the time the two of them played Trivial Pursuit—how Danielle didn’t even understand the questions, let alone know the answers, but appeared to be having the time of her life because someone was playing with her.) Perhaps these matters are subtle to the untrained eye. But I didn’t even merit a conversation? The funny story I told recently, about the mom who worried my voice was too calm when we booked our first appointment? That mom gave me a chance, and we got on splendidly.

My supervisor opined that the mother felt uncomfortable seeing Danielle behave like a different child; perhaps I had achieved something that she, as the parent, never had. He felt that she probably saw her daughter through a certain lens and was unwilling to have that lens so radically changed. Indeed, she might not have wanted to feel compelled to look at herself. I can’t profess to know if any of that was the case—but I can say this: I wanted to work with Danielle, and there are few things in life that upset me more than golden opportunities missed, especially when it’s not a matter of chance, but one of willful denial.

WHEN EAST IS WEST

Angry Is Happier Than Sad

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.”

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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.

 

UNRULY, STOIC, HEROIC

One of them wore a black biker jacket; another, a bitty brown mohawk. Several could not hold still if you paid them. They were third-grade rebels, and they sat in a circle, governed by a pink-and-yellow beach ball.

The rules were simple: Whoever held the ball could expect our collective attention as he shared a piece of news, and when he was done, he’d (lightly!) toss the ball to his chosen successor. Everyone would have a turn.

That simple ritual might be familiar to those in the school counseling world—and, for that matter, to teachers—but I was an intern, and justifiably impressed by my supervisor’s brilliance in coordinating it. Her energy normally ran as high as the boys’—she’d rather do calisthenics than sit at a desk—but she instinctively tempered herself to lead by example.

As with all positive interactions, this one worked on many levels, some subtler than others. For one thing, in a general classroom situation, attention tends to be divided six ways from Sunday, and it’s easy for kids to feel less included than they might wish to be—regardless of adult perceptions as to how much time and energy they’re getting. (If attention is like a beam of sunshine, kids are like mobile plants, jockeying for space, spreading their leaves, and reaching—in whatever way they know how—toward the light.) Clear turn-taking is more valuable than it might appear to you or me, especially with boys quickly learning from the world to play it cool, be disaffected.

So the beach ball gave the boys a chance to get what they privately, deeply needed, without having to fight for it. It also gave each boy brief control—over the ball, over what he offered up, and over whose turn would come next—and subconsciously encouraged the sharing of power. Additionally, as Lawrence J. Cohen discusses in Playful Parenting, “catch” is a way of bridging the distance between males in our culture—even, I think, when played out so briefly.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this activity, as participant-observer, was that, before sharing, each boy was asked to instruct us as to how he would like his news received. Applause? Silence? “Freestyle”? Several chose the last option, of course, and everyone was duly silly, crawling like crocodiles or shimmying or jumping like participants in some goofy Olympics. But the majority of the boys—referred to the group for their disruptive behaviors—requested silence. Heroic little men-to-be, I think they wanted to be taken more seriously.

AFTER SHOCKS

The building that houses the outpatient clinic where I’m interning this year, seems to be under some sort of malevolent static-electricity spell. I was disconcerted, on my first day, to be sparking against every door handle, stapler, filing cabinet, and desk drawer I touched. Even the doorways are framed out in metal. Everywhere I went, that hazard followed.

I find such shocks intensely uncomfortable. A job of mine used to involve a component that exposed me to shocks regularly, and until someone kindly brought me a grounding wire, I became unhappier and more irritable each time it happened. Thereafter, standing in place, working the machine responsible for the static, I wore a bracelet with a strap that clipped to a bolt and spared me further pain and anticipatory stress.

There’s no such recourse, however, in an environment that involves walking about, and I quickly developed the habit of smacking things with the flat of my hand, to spread the charge, before handling them more precisely. Now I walk around the office thus, hitting door frames, tapping the photocopy machine—you get the idea.

It helps. It also fostered in me a habit so constant, in the 20+ hours I spend there per week, that it quickly generalized to other environments, such that I found myself smacking door frames and tapping handles every carpeted place I went. I realized this a few days in and was embarrassed by the quasi-OCD quality to my behavior. Was anybody watching? (Fortunately realization broke the habit.)

At the same time, an awe was woken in me for the power of aversion: the insidious way it has of becoming second nature and its ramifications for our assessment by others. I was aided in noticing this by the highly physical nature of the stimulus; but what about all those situations in which aversion is interpersonal and/or developmental? What about, for example, the child who resists certain people, locations, or activities? The child who balks, to the frustration of adults?

Perhaps this illustration can serve as a reminder that everything has an origin, even when we can’t retrace our steps to find it. Teaching mindfulness to children offers them a salutary awareness of their sensations and reactions that hopefully can at least help them express, to themselves and others, their challenges. If they can’t tell you where something began, and thus satisfy the demands of logic, they may at least be better able to say where they’re at.