INVISIBLE INK

 

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.

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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!

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!

 

MY SMALL, GOOD THING

I had an insatiable hunger as a child, which I tried to feed with chapter books, great stacks that I collected on weekly library trips—cradled below my belly and held in place with my chin, as I carried them to the checkout counter.

That hunger is still present, but fiction often feels insubstantial these days, with so little time to spare and so much to accomplish. That shelf of titles on trauma, addiction, blended families, communication, grief, and more—I need what they contain. I need it all, I need it now. Such is the pressing quality of community mental health.

My intimate contact with the stories of traumatized children leaves me with simultaneous and contradictory incentives. One, to write so vividly of the horrors I hear and the pain I witness, that the general reader looks at the world anew: aghast and called to action. Two, to obscure those horrors so as not to titillate prurient minds or inspire troubled imaginations.

Sitting with memories of trauma is usually manageable; harder by far is to know that a trauma is ongoing—unfolding right before me in my office at times, in the words of caregivers who evidence no care to give, likely having received too little when they themselves were small. Harder is listening to parents, grandparents, and guardians who are overwhelmed and relentlessly negative, who fill the ears and hearts of their charges with every kind of blame and shame, each and every possible iteration of No. Needing to be diplomatic for the umpteenth time, when that is the last thing I feel; turning down the heat lest I, too, boil over.

So it is that I recommend Raymond Carver’s story, “A Small, Good Thing,” a masterful sketch of anguish in the ordinary world, and the humble ways we can assuage it. I reread it not long ago and carry that title within me, a phrase that describes the bird feeder on my window. How it took the birds two weeks to find it, but the first I saw was the male house finch, ardently red from crown to breast and finely patterned white and brown beneath. How the female house finch brings their juveniles to feed them beak to beak, while the punk-rock tufted titmouse busies himself with the sunflower seed.

Whatever else the day brings, there is that.

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The Raymond Carver story mentioned above appears in his great collection Cathedral, as well as numerous anthologies. 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, 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!

THE TROUBLE WITH UNICORNS

I hadn’t seen Tess in three months, and the first thing she did was take an inventory of my office: “That’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new, that’s new.” Pointing to sand table, miniatures, artwork on the walls.

I don’t think she missed a thing, except the fluorescent-green pothos cascading splashily from the window ledge. In that way—pointing, naming—she reestablished her relationship with my space and perhaps, by extension, me. Indeed, many things had changed, herself included—she was that much taller, that much smarter, and, happily, seemingly, that much more confident.

Unaltered was my delight in her elfin presence. So earnestly did she press one of her gold-foil chocolate coins upon me, a holiday treat; so sweetly did she show off her new dress, pink and purple, patterned all around with unicorns. I smiled to see it and sang its praises. She seemed happy, and I was glad. And then suddenly I was both there, with her, and far away, in an unidentified garment factory, drearily lit, poorly ventilated, and about the furthest thing from magic.

The trouble with unicorns is not just the trouble with unicorns, but with cartoon pandas and big green trolls and talking sponges in boxer shorts. It’s the trouble with cheap t-shirts emblazoned with “Love,” denim trousers bearing swirls of silver circles—stickers meant, I guess, to look like studs. It’s the trouble with our clothes in general, as well as our toys, our tools, and those devices one might use to read this blog that count as both. Whose labor feeds our restless appetites? What working conditions support the built-in obsolescence of trends? Unicorns as symbols have had a far longer life than most corporate creations; but they, also, have become commodities. Our “magic” is, too often, predicated on misery.

I mostly try to write in tight vignettes because expanding my scope makes me self-conscious, and the more editorial my voice, the more I question its worth in a crowded media world. There are any number of people out there speaking to my values—human rights, fair trade, environmental protections, and restorative justice, to name a few—and I feel that my gift is rather to experience and communicate the depths to be found within moments in time.

At least, that’s what I aspire to do. Thus, the profundity, for me, when Tess created a scene—a vignette of her own—from my miniatures. Six months into foster care, it wasn’t clear whether she’d be placed into a home shared by her siblings; it was even less clear whether she’d be returned to her biological parents one day.

There were babies in Tess’s scene, but no parents visible. I asked where they were, and she said they slept somewhere else. “The babies can live in the doghouse for now,” she said. Her case worker, who’d brought her, intercepted my meaningful look with one of her own. My hopes for Tess intensified—a safe and stable home with brothers and sisters close; parents who get clean and make up for lost time; a secure identity as she grows. But also this: that her new dress wasn’t made by a girl her age. That no one else’s unhappiness fed her little bit of needed joy.

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Names of clients 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. For information on supporting reduced consumerism in kids, check out the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

 

 

 

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.

DOWN DEEP

Lemon 3

 

The following vignette is drawn from my time volunteering in a kindergarten.

P, five years old, was normally well behaved—self-regulating, in clinical parlance. His classmate C, whom the teacher considered too young for school, might interrupt proceedings by pounding on his tiny chest and belting out a Tarzan imitation; P, sturdier and more mature, knew how to listen. He stayed “in the zone.”

On this particular day, though, something had gotten into him. At story time, sitting on the fringes, P turned his back to the teacher and kicked his shoes repeatedly against the carpet, beating a sullen tattoo. Several times I spoke to him about this. “It’s easier to concentrate when your eyes are on the teacher,” I whispered. I put a guiding hand on his shoulder. He obliged by turning his body partway toward the rest of the group but kept his eyes to the ground.

This behavior was so aberrant for P as to raise a question in my mind. But the question faded as the day progressed, each activity succeeding the one before, the writing of names and the cutting of paper with round-tipped scissors. Snack time, with its boasts and juice boxes, came and went. The declarations of one child inevitably stirred up an overlapping chorus of voices, all seeking attention. Consequently, P’s strange behavior slipped from my thoughts.

Later in the day, the teacher asked me to work one-on-one with the kids, on a color project, and I found myself across from P, at the world’s smallest work table, holding out a yellow crayon and asking him to draw a lemon.

He wouldn’t take the crayon. “I can’t,” he said. Snub-nosed with freckles, he stuck out his lip. Again, I was surprised. “Oh, I’m pretty sure you can,” I said. “You can draw all kinds of shapes. You know what a lemon looks like—it’s like a flat circle with pointy ends!” I was not persuasive. He raised his voice a little: “I caaan’t!” Hmm. “Look,” I said, “What if I draw one first, and you copy me?” (This worked sometimes with kids.) Strike three. “Noooo,” he wailed, “I caaaannnn’t!”

Because I’d come to recognize that children don’t fuss “just because,” I decided to take a more direct approach. “Are you having a bad day, P?” I asked. “No!” he said petulantly. “Oh,” I said, “really? It kind of seems to me like maybe you are. I noticed that earlier, and I’ve been wondering why.” I tried to pause a little, to give him some space. “Does your head hurt?” He continued to focus on his own middle distance. No, he didn’t have a headache. “Okay, so it’s not your head. That’s good. Does your stomach hurt?” No, his stomach didn’t hurt.

Then in a rush, his eyes grew red and filled with tears. “I miss my mom!”

I’d had a growing inkling that something like this was at work, yet I was, again, surprised—this time by the force of his anguish, so powerful, so vulnerable, yet buried all day long. Like a grown man, he might have kept it to himself.

What I’d been seeing in him were nascent coping mechanisms, based on denial. He would have made it home, and it’s possible that that would have sufficed. It’s possible that not even his mom would come to know that he’d struggled all day. Unless something particularly memorable happened, the day would be forgotten. He would grow older, taller, physically stronger, lean muscle replacing the softer flesh of early childhood. This day in kindergarten, when he so much missed his mom, might not “matter.”

It’s my belief, however, that we carry our untended pains within us. As children, we adapt coping mechanisms that shield us when we have few other means to do so, but that often prove to be maladaptive later in life. Some of us can barely confess the things that mean the most to us, that most shape our interior lives and, consequently, our relationships. We may not know how much we have to express, having taught ourselves ignorance of such things; but even knowing, we can feel helpless to act. I speak from experience.

The concept of therapy in our culture is burdened with many cliches; one such, often condescending, is the idea of “rambling” to someone about one’s childhood. How foolish and sad we are, societally, to mock our own deepest needs. It’s a powerful thing, to begin to find relief, after years, maybe decades, of denial. Everyone deserves to be nurtured as a child—however old he or she may be.

On this day, I was able to help P. I told him I was sorry he was having a hard time. I told him I could see the clock from where I was sitting, and I knew there was just an hour left to go. I told him I thought his mom was lucky to have such a loving little boy. A few more statements of that kind, and his tears cleared without falling. I asked if he thought he could draw a lemon for me. He said, “Okay!” And he did.

I’d met this boy’s mother; I knew he was cherished and provided for. He had a wonderful teacher and attended what is widely considered a fine elementary school. At its most pinched, its resources far exceed those of any number of schools in this country, as profiled by Jonathan Kozol in “Savage Inequalities.”

P had had one bad day in the time that I’d known him. And that single day’s pained emotions led him to feel a lack of self-efficacy: “I can’t do it.” The tiniest errant seeds can find quick purchase and grow deep roots.