Be The Adult You Needed As a Child:
TRIGGER ALERT. Sensitive subject matter in this post.
She sat in my office, all of 14 years old. We’ll call her “Sarah”.
Sarah had been diagnosed as bipolar, and had self harming behaviors. Already having had 3 suicide attempts, being removed from several schools, and under fear of being involuntarily placed into a residential treatment facility, Sarah’s family brought her to my office.
I listened to her mother as she spoke about Sarah’s behaviors, as if she wasn’t in the room. I know that her mother felt desperate, embarrassed and just didn’t know how to help her.
Sarah rolled her eyes, tried to argue with her mother, then slumped into the couch, unresponsive.
After going over the “normal first visit” stuff, the legal aspects, informed consent, etc. I turned to Sarah and asked her:
“I know that we have a lot of getting to know one another. During these next few visits, would you like that time spent with you and I as well as your mother, or would you like to wait a few visits before we talk with your mom in the room?”
Sarah’s mom didn’t seem thrilled but resisted to answer for her.
Sarah quickly darted her eyes before snapping:
“I don’t see why I need to talk to you about anything.”
I knew this tactic. Its one, like many angsty teens, that I had pulled myself, and at about her same age. I knew there had to be something deeper than just her having behavioral issues.
“That’s okay. I know its hard to trust someone new. We can share as little or as much as you would like.”
The next few sessions started slow. She would plop onto the couch:
“I don’t want to talk.”
But, every day she came to see me, she would talk. Little by little, she opened up.
She hated school, she hated her mother, and hated her life in general. She wanted desperately to have friends, but the ones she did pick were fair-weather and not high caliber. She had difficulty maintaining relationships in general, and often self sabotaged.
She was angry. Underneath that, I could tell that there was something else.
She was hurt.
After about six weeks, we had made general goals and worked towards those. She was making some good progress with her school work, self-regulation and with managing her urges to self-harm. However, I knew there was something bigger we needed to work on in order to make lasting progress in the areas we had been working on.
I prepared well in advanced for this next session. We were working on a visual representation of “Anger as an Iceberg”. I asked her to name some other emotions that were under the part of the iceberg that can be seen – that people may not see about her.
She listed some very insightful and telling things:
Then I asked the question:
“When is the first time that you remember feeling those things? Feeling Broken, Ruined, Hopeful?”
she took a deep breath…
The next half hour, she tearfully told me about her being molested over a period of time by a cousin, starting when she was 5. The cousin was a teen. Sarah was scared but told her grandmother, her aunt (the cousin’s mother) and her mother. They didn’t believe her. It had been almost ten years, and she no longer had contact with the cousin, but it was evident that the hurt was still just as real to her in that moment as it was when she was a little girl:
Her mother had told her:
“Stop Lying, Sarah! Bad girls lie.”
Bad girls lie.
I hurt for her so badly in that moment. I let her know that she could cry as long as she needed to before we continued on. And, to be honest, I needed a moment too.
After a few minutes, she let me know she was okay and ready to continue.
“I feel like I am bad sometimes”
I asked her if we could pretend for a moment, that the 5 year old Sarah came into the room, sat on the couch beside her and told her the story that she (14 year old Sarah) just told to me.
“What would you want to say to her?”
Without hesitation, she sat up on the couch and said,
“I would tell her that its not her fault, it wasn’t fair, that she is stronger than anything those people could say about her.
I would tell her not to give up.
That she can be better than how they made her feel.”
It was perfect. I couldn’t have come up with better words. She looked as ifa burden had lifted.
I repeated back to her the words she said to her younger self, we wrote them down, and made a plan for her to tell those things to herself when she was feeling upset or angry.
I then let her know that what happened to her was not her fault, it was not okay, she did not deserve to be treated the way that she was then, and should have been protected. I told her that I would support her how she needed me to.
Of course, her story had many ebbs and flows, and it wasn’t all victories. She still was on her bipolar medications, and had trouble maintaining friendships. It wasn’t perfect (and I don’t think we ever should expect perfection), however, when she stopped coming to see me, she had some better tools in her toolbox than when she came. I haven’t seen her in a very long time, but I do think of her often, and the lessons that I can take from having met her.
Sometimes the adults in our lives (as children) don’t do things right. Everyone has their own hurts and hangups. As we grow into adults ourselves, it can seem easier to not deal with those “iceberg” hurts, hoping we can ignore them long enough they will float away, or others will not see. But, that rarely happens. Quite the opposite in fact. However, having a trusted friend to be vulnerable with, and making a constant conscious effort to heal those childhood wounds is essential to becoming an emotionally healthy, happy person.
In closing, I leave you with this (something I have to tell myself):
Be the adult that you needed as a child.