It’s just 5 days away from our free workshop. Can I offer you a story?
I’m about 24. I’m two years into my graduate program. I’m a baby-psychologist learning to be a psychologist. I drive to a psychiatric hospital one day per week an entire semester and work with children who are receiving inpatient treatment for mental health problems. I go through multiple channels of locked doors and secure areas. I work in the hospital and within the school that serves children. Each week, I counsel, assess, advise, and learn. I work with teachers, psychiatrists, line staff, and families of these children.
I love these kids. They’re tough. They’re struggling. They’re violent. They’re loving. They’re overmedicated. They’re lonely. They’re emotional. They’re scared.
Bulletin boards and desks are anchored. Chairs are heavy. Everything feels like white-starch-chemical-institution-behavioral-disconnect.
I’m in a classroom one day, observing some kids and helping others when a child becomes violently aggressive. There are no windows. There are not posters or colorful images. Just white walls. When this happens, the lead teacher takes the child out of the room and calls for help. I stay in the classroom with 12 other children, all suffering from various forms of mental illness. I hear the child, falling apart uncontrollably on the other side of the door, which locks from the outside. He’s violently thrashing about and, at the same time, asking for help – it’s heartbreaking. Suddenly, a child jumps up from the opposite side of the room I inhabit and shuts off the lights. The room is completely dark.
I am 24. I’m two years into my graduate program. I’m a baby-psychologist learning to be a psychologist. I am not ready. And yet, I’m the only one.
One child inside the room says to another, “If you put a booger on me, I’ll kill you.” Another child says, “I’m scared, turn the lights on.” And yet another, “Amy, where are you?” I’m scared. I’m uncertain. I’m not prepared. And yet, I’m the only one.
I take a deep breath and consider:
I could threaten punishment if the lights aren’t turned on immediately.
I could guess who did this and shame the individual.
I could scream for help.
I could try to reassure that the lead teacher will be back soon.
But, instead, I say out loud to the 12 children with me, “I bet this feels scary to some of you and exciting to others.” I hear confirmations and whispers. “I feel kind of scared too. I know you all know what it feels like to be scared. I wonder how we might all feel a little safer right now.” And one child whispers, “Could someone turn the light back on?” And another says, “We’re all going to get in trouble if the teacher comes back and the lights are off.” And another says, “I hate it here.” Suddenly, a child nearest the lights flips it back on and the room lights up the excited, scared, young faces in the room with me. I smile and say, “I’m not sure who turned off the lights and I’m not sure who turned them back on, but both feel pretty powerful. I wonder if sometimes you feel like you don’t have any control. And you can hear your friend outside crying and that’s scary.” Lots of heads nod. Even though on the inside, I’m shaky and want to throw up, I say, “I know how it feels to be powerless. I’m sorry it feels that way.”
What happened in that moment was transformation for me as a baby-psychologist and for the kids I worked with at that hospital. I needed them to know that I saw them. I needed them to know that, no matter how scary their behavior was, I wasn’t scared of them as people, as little humans. And I needed them to know how to be powerful and in control, in safe ways. But first, they needed me to act safe, create safety, and model it – and through my absolute uncertainty, I tried.
Later, as I processed the situation with my supervisor, we brainstormed what seemed like hundreds of other ways I could have handled the situation. But mostly, what sat with me was that she said this: “You did your best. You created safety. You talked them through their feelings and yours. Some of them have never experienced that before.”
And as the year went on, the kids in treatment with me would tease me and ask if I was afraid of the dark. Before I left and my rotation at the hospital was complete, a 14-year-old boy said to me, “Remember that day in the school basement when I turned off the light?” I smiled and said, “that was you?” He nodded and said, “I thought you’d be scared. And you were new. And I didn’t like you or trust you yet. I would never do that now. I’m sorry.” I looked at him and said, “I forgive you. And I was scared. Mostly that I couldn’t help. But I want to let you know, I do things I wish I wouldn’t when I’m scared too. Maybe we can just keep working on other ways to say we’re scared.” He nodded and said, “Yep, that’s cool.”
That hospital still comes to my mind frequently. I hold those children, now adults, in my heart and wonder about how each of them is doing. They taught me so much.
I hope we can all sit in community together next week, learn together, be curious, and lean into ways to understand complex behavior. It’s so tough right now and it’s okay to not be okay. But it’s not okay to be alone.
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