By Carol Smaldino, CSW
This week's guest blogger, Carol Smaldino, has been a marriage and family therapist in Port Washington, NY for more than 20 years. She specializes in troubled youth and persons with ADHD. You can learn more about Carol at www.growingreal.com.
In this piece, Carol relates a story of how she, as a therapist, coached a young client who was walled-off and one-down in shame to learn how to find his center in self esteem. You can learn more about this Relational Life solution by downloading The Relationship Grid and by reading Terry Real's blog posting on the subject in the REAL Advice archives.
I met Frank shortly after his first psychiatric hospitalization. He was 20 and home on college break. One evening he declared he needed fifty wives, and without warning, he burst into the street and was almost hit by an oncoming car.
Frank walked into my office robotic, insisting without emotion that he was fine, he just had an “off” moment and was ready to return to school. I sensed fatigue in him; he agreed.
He said, “Man do I feel pressured.” Moments after his father came for him, he blamed me for “making him” feel bad by insisting he was pressured. I was lying, and I was boring. He didn’t need therapy anyway.
Family therapy seemed the only possibility. I knew I needed leverage from the parents, and little more. I knew Frank was on edge and that he could freak out again. The intensity of my focus as a therapist was clearly more on him at first.
Frank was on psychiatric meds for mood stabilization but both his psychiatrist and psychologist thought of him as an “enigma”. I decided to reside temporarily in the land of not knowing with the hope that some essence of clarity would be revealed.
As my own concern for his immediate well being lessened, I began to notice the consuming “war of the parents”. They seemed in competition for the prize of who knew best and who could blame the other for Frank’s illness.
And yes, this had always been the case. Frank, born with a shy temperament, had turned inward to protect himself from the emotional onslaught. He avoided confrontation, denied his own preferences, and spoke little. He went through school with few even superficial friendships. He passed tests but walked between the raindrops of academic requirements.
Since Frank was hiding in his inner emotional basement, he seemed without words or any sense of safety about expressing his feelings or confusion. I didn’t want to badger him with questions or expectations. So, I started interrupting either parent when he/she intrusively violated Frank’s boundary by—for example—bringing up a touchy subject without asking his permission.
Using this approach, of suggesting where the boundaries are, Frank seemed to cautiously experience a modicum of safety. He began saying he didn’t know this or that, and he even got angry in response to a too strong expectation from his mother.
As I tentatively guided Frank, he began talking on his own terms, telling me if I was right or wrong. He liked the idea that his hiding had made real sense under the circumstances. It became humanizing for all of us as we refrained from isolating Frank as the sick one among us.
Frank’s parents wonderfully said they wanted to stop using Frank as a ping pong ball and as a distraction from their own issues. They began couples therapy and told Frank of their intentions.
Frank returned to college. He began counseling with someone near the campus with whom we all spoke and who seemed to us all as a trustworthy person.
Words had once been instruments of damage for Frank. He had begun to define himself, and to find that his words could belong to him.