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!

 

PRIDE

Ectoplasmic rainbow

“Did you tell your counselor what you said to me in the car?”

“No,” said Mercedes, with a smirk followed by a giggle.

“You should tell her!” her mom exclaimed.

“No, you tell her!”

“You don’t want to tell her?”

“No, I want to hear you.”

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Mercedes had come to services as a high-strung nine-year-old with separation anxiety. After eight months’ worth of escapades designed to develop her confidence, she was ten years old and seemed pretty near ready to command the universe. (Our fast-slow games and yarn telegraph in the hallway provided unintended ancillary outcomes in the smiles of amused and bemused colleagues passing by.)

As her parents described it to me, they had felt hostage to their daughter’s need for constant reassurance. She’d required accompaniment to her classroom each morning and a detailed outline in her planner regarding who would pick her up after school, when, and how. Her mother included a cheering note in Mercedes’s packed lunch each day. Mercedes couldn’t be left home alone for even a handful of minutes. Breaches of protocol led to tearful fits.

All that changed, and more. I’ll try to write another time about our work, much of it disguised as silliness. Notable here is her parents’ support of their daughter’s therapeutic homework, and Mercedes’s willingness to engage in same. More than anything I did, that made the difference. Deep breathing practice was added to her bedtime routine, along with a recitation of three things that made her happy. Three things every night without fail, that was the only rule—they could repeat or vary endlessly, and be substantial, like visiting grandparents, or lighter, like an extra-yummy breakfast.

Notable also, on the part of her parents, was their extraordinary ability to identify and celebrate positive change. Too many parents with whom I’ve worked have goal posts that constantly recede, such that nothing their kids do is ever enough. As an adult, I find that approach profoundly disheartening; how much worse must their kids feel? When Mercedes volunteered to take half the grocery list and split off from her dad in the store to find things—one of the early positive signs—the confidence and independence she expressed got the recognition they deserved. Blessings upon you, parents of Mercedes!

My inspiration to write about this family this particular week, however, came from another form of recognition, during our last visit. First, I presented Mercedes with the book of skills and stories she had created bit by bit. In the back, there was a letter from me. When we met, she’d chosen a skeleton key from a set of images, as the one representing something about what had brought her to counseling. “I hope when I’m done, I’ll have the key to my worries,” she’d said. Ceremonially, I presented her with an actual skeleton key, which I’d chosen the summer before from a tool chest at a flea market, with an inkling that it would serve a purpose someday.

In reviewing her accomplishments to date, Mercedes’s mom mentioned forgetting a note in the usual packed lunch; it wasn’t, to her surprise, the end of the world. A ruined batch of birthday cupcakes had Mercedes reassuring her mom, “It’s not worth getting upset about.” She could enter school by herself, and take the bus in the afternoon, looking after herself at home for an hour or two. She even seemed to enjoy her time alone. But the most striking detail shared that day, for me, had to do with her seemingly growing assertion of selfhood.

So what had happened in the car? Apparently her mom had made some reference to Mercedes growing up, how one day she’d be bringing boys home and taking her dad to a whole new level of stress. And apparently Mercedes had rejoined from the back seat, “What if I like girls?”

Mercedes giggled again, hearing me hear it.

“And what did I say?” asked her mom. Her lovely, fond, invested, teasing, caring, and committed mom, who had gamely partaken of all our adventures, including holding an end of red yarn while her daughter backed away unrolling the ball of it. “Are you still there?” I encouraged her to ask her mom every step or so, tugging the telegraph line, while her mother answered, “Still here,” tugging in reply. Eventually Mercedes rounded a corner and kept up an unspoken communication—out of sight, on her own, but still connected. We talked afterward about the metaphor of that—how our invisible connection to those we love might look, if we could see it, like that red yarn. Securely held while giving and receiving.

About her daughter possibly being gay, her mother turned the beam of her smile from Mercedes to me and back: “I told her that would be just fine with us.”

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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 click the “Follow” button, accompanied by a plus-sign, in the lower right corner of your computer screen. Thank you for reading. I was greatly inspired, in my work with this client, by Playful Parenting and The Opposite of Worry, by Lawrence J. Cohen. My deepest condolences to all who have lost their loved ones to violent crimes, including hate crimes.