Warning, this post will not have any food. Nonetheless, it may be worth a read. Plus, I’ll make mention of my grandmother.
Growing up, my grandmother was my source of unconditional love and my non-judgemental ear. She was my cheerleader and encourager and she made me feel as though there was nothing too hard for me to do. She made me believe that I could be and do anything if I put my mind to it. My grandmother was always available to listen, she was open-minded (at least for a woman of her age and time period) and she always made sure that I knew how much she cared about me. She only offered advice if I asked and when she did offer it, it was gently and in a way that made sense. In short, my grandmother was not only the perfect parental figure, she was the perfect therapist.
She may be one of the reasons I’m in my chosen profession. Aside from cooking and being a mother, I work as a clinical psychologist. My main focus is on children and adolescents who have experienced psychological trauma, generally in the form of neglect, physical and sexual abuse. It’s hard work and heartbreaking on a moment-to-moment basis. However, I am sometimes lucky enough to be in the presence of nothing short of a miracle.
Being a therapist is such an odd position. You’re not a friend or a parent but you care about your clients in a very similar way, especially when your clients are young and are often seeking that kind of validation and love. You’re in a position to know everything about the client- extremely intimate details including medical history, sexual history and their innermost shameful thoughts and actions. Even if time passes, you still know those details; once something has been said, it can’t be unsaid. You hold a piece of that person with you for the rest of your life. It’s an honor and a privilege to be allowed into someone’s life like this and I remember that every single time I sit with a child or parent. I’m not sure that all therapists do, which makes me sad. Some are in it for the initials after their name, others for the supposed money (there really isn’t that much!). Others are in it for more sinister reasons, to satisfy their own need for power or validation or love. These are the therapists (I think) who sing their own praises, talking about how much they help their clients change. I’m on the other side of that. Because it’s such a privilege to be allowed into someone’s life, I never feel as though I am the reason for change. Instead, I feel like my grandmother- the ultimate cheerleader, the one who can hold on to hope for the future, the one who can see the potential for change in the person, the one who can support, encourage and remind them that they are capable of anything, regardless of their past.
I am thinking about this today because I have been lucky enough to remain in contact with a former client. I worked with him for two years, when he was in residential care. He moved on to foster care but we have stayed in touch via email. I visit with him about once a year. All of which is cleared with social workers, foster care workers and foster parents. I wrote this after seeing him last year:
He Was The Child
When I met him, he was just 12 years old. He was short and sort of awkward. He had a tough guy persona, acting as though nothing bothered him, all bravado and machismo. He tried ordering me around in my office, tried barking commands at me, tried to get me angry or hurt. He told me stories and lies, telling me that he was the best basketball player at his old program, that he talked with his father every day and that he was ready to be out of programs right then and there. He shot baskets at the hoop on the back of my door and made fun of me when I shot and missed. He demanded I get the ball for him every time.
I stuck with him through this because I had read his history. I knew the difference between his stories and lies and the true tragedy his life had been. It was hard but I sidestepped the power struggles and didn’t immediately confront him about the lies or the barking commands. I smiled and listened and made jokes when I could. Sometimes I’d offer a gentle explanation or interpretation of his behavior which he would quickly deny and laugh off. When he couldn’t do either, he’d resort to just insulting me.
We worked together for about a year and a half. After two months together, the bravado slowly gave way to his true, insecure, desperately wanting self. After six months, he was able to talk about hard feelings without needing to insult me as he did so. After nine months, he was relying on me to help him figure out all the confusion and hurt in his soul. After a year he confessed to me, “I think I’m bad. But it’s [the bad] frozen like solid ice and it’s covered by my big heart. My heart disaffects it.” After 13 months he cried as he told me, “You’re right, I am scared. I threaten because I am scared. Something bad inside me might melt. And then I’ll just be all bad.”
His history was similar to that of other kids with whom I worked. Inconsistent, if any, parenting, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, transitory living situations. He had been “in programs” since he was six and had been in the foster care system beginning at age two. His file made my heart hurt and working with him all that time made me cry and laugh, sometimes in the same moment.
He was the child I wanted to adopt, wanted to bring home, wanting to create a new life for, one filled with culture, positive experiences and love. Consistent, unwavering, unconditional love. He was the child that tested all my boundaries. I was so careful with him, talked about him in supervision, talked about him in my own therapy. I didn’t want to violate any trust or boundary with him, as so many of the adults in his life had. He was so open and vulnerable under his tough-guy exterior. He was desperate for love, to be told he was worthy of good, positive, non-wounding love, to be hugged and held and cherished.
When the time came for him to move out of residential care and into a foster home, I was excited for him. I helped him meet his foster family, took him on visits to their house, convinced him that it was a good move, to give it time and to adjust. I took him shopping for food for his goodbye party. I watched him at the party, saw the bravado return so that he wouldn’t look scared in front of the other kids. I waved as he drove away with his foster-mother, after we officially discharged him as a residential case, knowing I’d see him again in a week when he started in our day program.
And that night I cried the entire hour and a half drive home. I was so proud of him, so proud of the work he had done. But I was scared that he wasn’t ready, that his foster mother didn’t really “get” him, that he’d be hurt again and shut down for good. That the ice that was “disaffected” by his huge, desperate-for-love heart would take over and freeze him permanently. That he’d open up to the wrong person and once again confirm his deeply held belief that he was, fundamentally, a bad person, unworthy of love.
I kept working with him. For the next four months as he attended our day program, I continued as his therapist. We worked on issues focused on adjusting to living in a home rather than an institution. We talked about sex a lot- he was in a co-ed, very loosely supervised situation for the first time in his life and wasn’t really sure how to proceed. We discussed the rules about and the laws focused on consent and ages therein. We talked about his loyalty to his biological family and the conflict of living with a foster family, especially one which was not of his cultural background.
Finally, September rolled around and he was set to start at a public school. I transferred his case to an outside therapist, signed off on all his papers and went to his home for one last visit together. We talked about how far he had come, how much work he had done and how proud of him I was. I reminded him that he could always email me. I hugged him goodbye, a first for us, and left.
And cried all the way home, again. This was no longer the awkward 12 year old child I had met two years prior. He was still as macho, still filled with bravado to cover up the small, hurt, vulnerable boy he was but he was also older, stronger and somewhat more savvy about his feelings and behaviors. It was not going to be an easy road for him but it was a road he was now better equipped to travel.
Over the next two years, I would get small emails from him. Many times they just said, “Hi.” I always responded, with some open ended questions about school and home and always made sure to tell him how glad I was to hear from him. I always sent an ecard on his birthday. Every fifth or so email, he’d ask if I could come visit him. Sometimes he’d tell me about visiting with his biological father but I was never sure if this was more of his stories or if it was true.
Finally, a few months ago, he sent me an email thanking me for all I had done for him. He also asked if I could visit him for his birthday, that it would mean so much to him. Enough time had passed that I thought perhaps it would be ok for me to see him, so I got in touch with his treatment team. They updated me on his progress- he’s been doing well in school and at home, he’s playing football and is very musical, he’s visiting with his biological family a few times a month. They agreed a visit would be nice and we began a several months long process of trying to set it up.
It came to fruition today. I pulled up to his foster home to see him in the driveway, shooting baskets. He was taller, broader and had an older face but he was the same little boy who had walked into my office four years ago and demanded that I pick up the ball for him. I almost cried when I saw him.
Over the course of an hour, he played the piano and the guitar for me. He played me recordings of his band and of his original songs. He sang along with Justin Bieber, Eminem and Akon. We talked a little but not much. He is now visiting with his dad quite often and he bragged to me that his dad had “hooked” him up with a “hot girl” who was now his girlfriend.
I asked him bluntly if he was drinking, drugging and having sex. He denied the first two and looked at me coyly for the third. I reminded him to use a condom every time and we engaged in the banter we used to have wherein he played dumb in order to get me worked up. I didn’t fall for it, choosing instead to remind him of all the good choices he’s made and that I had confidence that he’d make them again. And we talked about how old the girl is (he says she’s 17 to his 16).
I wrote him a little note on a post-it on his desk, where I was sitting, telling him how proud of him I am and how happy I was that he shared his music and voice with me. I reminded him that I believed in him.
Before I left, I looked around his room and saw signs of the man he will become- two guitars, an amp, a black leather wallet and baggy jeans. Despite all of this, my heart sobbed as I noticed the nightlight plugged into the wall. At 16, he’s still afraid of what can happen in the dark.
He walked me out to my car and as I was getting in said, “So if she’s 18 and I’m 17, we have to wait until she’s 19 and I’m 18 to have a real relationship, right?” I grinned at him and he grinned back. It was his way of reminding me that he had been listening all those years ago, that the work we had done remained. It was his way of connecting with me and of showing me that he was still that little boy, despite his more developed appearance.
“Right.” I replied.
“Ok, cool.” He said as he walked back toward the house, tossing off a casual wave towards me. “Bye. I’ll email you, you know, if I’m not lazy.”
I didn’t cry on the way home this time. I grinned for the entire drive.
Today, I saw him again and much of what I wrote last year remains true. What’s changed? He now plays basketball but not football. He’s a year older, has a new girlfriend (but she’s far away so sex isn’t an issue), and spends time each week with his family. He’s more jaded- or is it realistic?- about them, especially his father. He still plays music- self taught on the piano and guitar- and he played me some of his recordings which are very good. He’s thinking about college. The bravado is still there but has softened somewhat. He has more confidence, is thinking about his future and was less challenging with me. He admitted to trying alcohol and some drugs but again reminded me that he was smart and knew what he was doing.
I asked him if he was happy, if he was glad he had made the choices he had. He thought for a moment and then said that, yes, he was.
I’m pretty sure my heart ached and sang at the same time in that moment. I saw before me a confident, thoughtful, self-assured young man. He had hope for his future and confidence in his abilities. He was thoughtful about his past- he talked about missing a sibling with whom he hasn’t had contact in years and who has no memory of him. He talked about how much that hurt but that he was there if the sibling wanted to meet him someday. We talked about college and when I suggested a local school which specialized in music, he asked, hesitantly, if I thought he could get in. I told him that it couldn’t hurt to try and that his music was really very good. He smiled and the self-confidence came back.
As I looked at him, I could see, superimposed on this 17-year-old-man, the 12-year-old-boy he had been. Because I had the honor of witnessing his change, because I had been privileged to hear his innermost thoughts and fears, I could hold these images at the same time. I could see how far he has come. I could remember for him.
I could not be more proud of him right now. I told him so, and he smiled a bit shyly, reminding me that I always tell him that. We agreed to email and he mentioned that I could come visit anytime. I told him I’d be happy to, he just needed to invite me.
On my drive home, I was overwhelmed- with pride for him, with the amazing gift I had been given in sharing his life, with awe at how hard he’s worked and how far he’s come.
This is the reason I do this work. For the far and few between afternoons like this one. To be able to watch someone grow, change and discover their own abilities and power is an amazing, awesome honor and responsiblity, one which leaves me humbled and in awe of the resilience of the human spirit.
I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.