Freeze! So now what?
Ok, here we are, a second blog post. You’ve hopefully had a snack and gotten through some bad TV, now what? I knew with this second post that I wanted to share a story about my work, but I wasn’t sure which one. It had to be about a difficult conversation. Those are often the kind I am asked about the most, “Michael, I had this experience with my client and they brought up such a heavy issue and I simply froze. I didn’t know what to do.” That is ok. We don’t need to know exactly what to do, we just need to understand how to be with someone in conversation. No matter how scary the content may seem, it is more about how you handle the process of being with that person or persons.
All right, here we go. I have provided therapeutic services in a variety of settings and communities and that will never change. Those experiences help me grow the most. This particular story involves my work in a public school. As you might guess there are already some unique dynamics at play here. There are of course the systems in place from the school district, protocols and expectations, things like that. Trickling down a little more are the teachers and staff that make up a piece of the community with their own ideas and hopes for what I am capable of doing. Next are the students. They and their families are the people I work directly with even though I am still working within a larger system. I essentially have to do a special dance to make sure that my relationships are built and maintained throughout the entire system. I am an outsider coming into a community and for my role to work it is helpful to have connected relationships.
One day in a school far, far away I was beginning to wrap my day up. It was one of those long days that was only just beginning and I was secretly thrilled to have a late lunch consisting of French fries, when suddenly, “Michael, we have an emergency. We have a student that has reported wanting to kill herself. We need to do an assessment and safety plan, can you help us with this?” The assistant principal had concerns about engaging in the suicide assessment and safety plan himself and wanted me to facilitate that process. I immediately said yes and made my way to find the student.
Hunched over a desk in the nurse’s office the student tilted her head up as I walked in introducing myself. Beyond her wide eyes brimmed with tears I recognized a familiar face. I had worked with this girl before back when she was much younger. A number of years had passed but there she was. I bent down to meet her face to face and I softly said, “Do you remember me? It has been a very long time huh?” There was a pause and then she nodded fighting back a wave of tears. I gently asked if she wanted to come and talk with me. She nodded some more.
We walked slowly to a little office. I was having mini frozen moments. I did not know much information about what happened or what this student had said aside from the mention of harming herself. I was holding back my own tears about this student who I had last seen as a laughing and smiling child and was now a pre-teen in a very emotionally painful space. I had no idea how this was going to go.
However I remembered the things I did know. I knew that we had already formed a relationship from years past so there was hope that she would remember that. I also knew that I had a great opportunity to learn about this student and her pain. There was this other order of business about the suicide assessment and safety plan but I was trying not to think too much about the school’s protocol.
“My goodness, it has been a few years since I saw you last. Tell me a little bit about how things have been? I seem to recall you had an older brother and a younger sister. How are they?” She looked at me and wiped her tears, “They are good. My sister still goes to this school. My brother is in a different school now but he likes it.” I nodded and smiled, “I remember them very well. How about the rest of your family? How are they doing?”
She looked at me and fought back more tears before crying, “I lost my grandmother. I didn’t get to say goodbye and I miss her so much. My mom and dad work too much, I never get to spend time with them. My mom is not there for me and I just want her to tell me that she loves me. I feel sad all the time and I just don’t want to be here anymore. I wish I was dead with my grandmother. I think about dying all the time.” I nodded and explained, “It sounds like you have been dealing with a heavy loss. It also sounds like you are not getting the emotional support you would like from your family.”
“Yes.” Her lips shook while I handed her some new tissues from the ones that were retiring in her hands. With my curiosity I learned more about the loss of her grandmother and how that loss had impacted her relationships with friends and family. I also listened for what sounded like resiliency especially in terms of the people in her life she felt she could rely on. Her relationships with her siblings were stronger than ever.
However the weight of her grief had taken a toll and she had begun to feel like the only way to escape was by killing herself. I carefully asked to know more about what her thoughts were on suicide and her understanding of how far she was willing to go. I learned the suicidal thoughts were a preoccupation of hers but that there had been no plan or action made to make the thoughts come true. “I can’t do that to my brother and sister. I am just hurting and I am sad because people leave your life and then they never come back.”
I fought back my own tears hearing this from her and I shared some of my own pearls of wisdom with her, “Ya know life is really funny. Sometimes we do lose people and they aren’t able to come back, like with the loss of your grandmother, and that can be incredibly sad and painful to go through. But then there are other times when you may think that someone is gone, never to return again, when out of nowhere there they are. I mean look at us. I worked with you and your siblings for a whole school year and then just like that we didn’t see each other for a number of years and yet here we are again.”
Fighting back more tears she nodded, “You helped us and were always so nice. You also had those fun games with you.” I closed my eyes and chuckled, “Yes, I do remember those games. You guys were always so great at Sorry, I never stood a chance.” We both looked at each other smiling through our tears. “Would it be helpful for you if we continued to talk every week, like we did back then?” She nodded.
As the conversation was winding down I looked at the assessment and safety plan. The paperwork needed to be filled out. It was school’s orders. I explained to her that we had to fill these forms out for the school, but that if she did not want to we could come up with something else. “It’s ok, I understand we have to do that.” So with the information she had provided I began to fill the assessment out and was transparent about the process in its entirety.
The same went for the safety plan. Together we worked on creating her own rules and language that she wanted to include in the safety plan. Every step of the way I was very conscious of this being a mutual process that was as free as possible from any role of me being the expert. She was in charge of her own story, I was just someone she felt comfortable telling it to.
Afterwards she went back to the nurse’s office and the paperwork was turned in. Mom and dad were contacted with dad on his way to pick her up. The work with the student and her family was just beginning and I was relieved that we were all there to support her.
I eventually left as I had more clients to see at HGI's office. I didn’t get my late lunch fries, which was just fine. Goodness knows my stomach and thighs were grateful for that decision. Instead I had a mini sob-session in my car because I hate having to see kids cry or be in pain. Once that was done I reapplied some mascara, painted on a fresh coat of lipstick and went on my merry way. As they say darling, the show must go on.
Up next on an all new Behind the Curtains!
Find out what happens when getting in a car with a stranger pays off and other such random anecdotes!