Ramblings of a Cathy
It was one of those really ..
It was one of those really busy days, I think. There are mornings at the crisis team that I didn't even get to sit at my desk because I was being dispatched to school after school. That was one of those mornings, and I was fuckin tired. I was sweaty, and my sometimes casual - sometimes Express chique - clothes were getting loose on me that day. But when I'm tired, I have gotten very good at just hunkering down, getting comfortable - probably eating more drive thru snacks - and not really processing the exhaustion. I drove to the school with music playing, and probably dissociating into a happy thought.
I've always been the kind of person, even as a young kid, that was really good at listening to people. I don't know if it's psychotic of me to say, but I liked to listen to people's stories, imagine it in my head, and really feel the colors and bubbles of their emotions in the story. It was the way I connected to people, ways I would change a bully's mind about me, and ways I would feel real feelings.
Growing up my mother introduced me to the public library - even made it a big event when we got our library cards and were given the privilege of getting books and books on the weekends, right before McDonalds run on Saturdays. I was in middle school when my sister showed me one of her favorite books at the time. Jack and Jill by James Patterson. I read it, and then my sister and I would inhale the whole series of Dr. Alex Cross - forensic psychologist who works in the community, understands and takes down sociopaths and serial killers. It modified my long term goals early.
Then high school happened and I was first introduced to a TRUST Counselor. She was a quiet white woman, but very at ease and cool about everything. There was a moment where she asked a group I was in about something. I began to respond but then someone else spoke over me, so I immediately withdrew - like I always did. But her eyes never left mine, her manner never changed. She asked the other person politely to stop talking, looked at me and said "I'm sorry, what were you saying?"
I never forgot that because she listened to me. I realized then that no one really gave a shit what I had to say, my family or people I called friends at the time - not because they were assholes, but because I was very meek growing up. But when she did that it changed a lot in me and reaffirmed my mission to be a psychologist.
Then college happened, then graduate school happened, and I learned that when I immersed myself in these stories that people told I can look around and notice the "plot holes" (i call them) - the irrational patterns of behavior, the impulsive tendencies, the theories, the unsaid. And then I hurled myself into these jobs that put me in people's houses, in hospital facilities, in suicide hotlines, in schools, in parks of homeless people, in rural areas, in mansions, in neglected pockets of neighborhoods, in poor cities, in small lawless territories, in jails, in private islands... and I learned about trauma effects, acculturation nuances, the things that make so people completely different and so undeniably the same.
My husband, Steven, pushed me to get my license. Once I got it I became a Licensed Mental Health Clinician, which is pretty much the closest to my young dreams as anyone can get without getting into crippling debt. LOL.
As soon as I got that license I immediately went gunning for a position with the mobile youth crisis response team. For years, as an unlicensed counselor, I've wanted to work there. The Youth Emergency Services [YES] Team is a mobile response team of mental health counselors that conduct formal clinical threat assessments to kids in crisis. It sounds more bad ass than it truly is, but it still feels kind of bad ass when in hindsight.
The interview was hilarious. I went in there to truly sell myself to a department that was underfunded and in need of someone to keep the job. I was so enthusiastic sitting there in a suit that I had actually paid a lot for - my hair and make up completely done - speaking to a tired woman with her arm in a splint.
The team was overburdened, and a small squad of licensed counselors that were way too good for that job. To me they were all fit for private practice, making more money, but they worked there for health insurance. (Which explained the turn-over). I told myself I would keep that job for a year and then really jump into something bigger.
Everyone in Broward can call the mobile response team if they feel there is a child, and sometimes an adult, that is a danger to themselves and others. So we got into some weird calls - like the time me and a Peer Support Specialist went into a house with dolls hanging off the ceiling, and only a Spanish speaking deluded little old lady there - in a makeshift surgeon suit - telling us that her son was upstairs (no he wasn't...). I've been bitched at by parents, kids, administrators, law enforcement... that job was crazy. But several calls come to mind.
The school was very ordinary. The staff was very distraught at this call, but they hid it with smiles and forced congeniality. This is not uncommon in South Florida, so they predictably calmed down when I returned the congeniality and normalized their concerns about the student: 4th grade black male student who spoke about wanting to kill himself after a kid made fun of him in a class. The staff member handed me some ripped notebook paper with "I hate myself" - and other stuff - crudely written across it in pencil. I made a show of analyzing it and then stuffed it in my clipboard. Contrary to popular belief, there's no real homicidal or suicidal intent in a drawing or writing. There needs to be something stated to me in order for me to really intervene.
After some prepping they put me in a small empty school office, with supplies and boxes lining the walls and a drawing board on the other side. I sat in a seat that was too small and casually set myself up until they let a young boy in. He had big sad eyes, curly hair up top with shaven sides, and preppy clothes. His guidance counselor awkwardly put him in front of me and left us alone.
I smiled like if I was pleased to see him after a long time. "Hi Hector. I'm Catherine and I'm with the YES Team. Teachers call us when they feel really scared for a student. I just want to ask you some questions to see if you're safe. Is that cool?" My tone was lighthearted, my manner was casual, my focus only on him. He sat with his eyes averted, face down on an unaligned school desk that fit his size perfectly. I noticed that his clothes were too small on him. His sadness made my chest ache. I felt the tell-tale feeling of frustration at his lack of attention and complete apathy. I mentally noted it my physical feelings, and felt myself locate all the "plot holes".
"Why are your teachers scared for you?" The question felt right.
When he looked up at me, his big light brown eyes were filled to the brim. I was briefly distracted by the torn shirt sleeve that caught my eye before he started begging me not to tell his mother whatever it is that was going on. I modeled calm, leaned all the way across my little desk to him, and reassured him that I would TRY to not tell his mother about anything we discussed.
He told me he was scared to go home because of what his mother found on a social media app thing (I'm so old). "She doesn't love me anymore". He said, and his voice broke at the end into a silent tears.
While he cried I took out a near-empty pack of tissues to hand to him. And when I went to give it to him he immediately gripped my hand and cried into my fingers. I felt nothing for a few minutes, just hyperaware of his sweaty forehead on my palm and the pooling tears developing there. I registered the fact that his hair was full of dandruff, and his clothes were 2 sizes too small on him. The clothes that at first looked preppy appeared to actually be mismatched, his green denim jeans rose above his knobby knees and his collared striped purple shirt was cutting his little baby deltoid in half.
When he didn't speak for a bit I pushed my palm up a little to reorient his chin to face me. He sniffed and I gave him a sad smile - unsure of what to say, completely derailed by the fact that a child can doubt their mother's love for them... I was smiling at him but my brain was flipping through interventions. I did the mental equivalent of flipping a big book of counseling all the way to the very beginning chapter. "Do you want to kill yourself?"
He nodded emphatically, his eyes stayed on mine.
"On a scale of one to 10..." I gave him the solution focused suicide scale thingy we use at work, with light dramatics at the end of every syllable.
He immediately looked around and started messing with his fingers. "I think maybe a 4 or 5."
My body stayed tense, but I allowed myself to get comfortable on the seat, eyeing him coolly. "Have you been feeling like this for a long time?
He shook his head again, softly this time. "Sometimes we think about suicide, but we don't really wanna do it. That's just a way that some of us learn how to cope with - to deal with - the sadness we feel." I pause to watch the way he moves and reacts to this. His eyes slowly meet mine again, so I keep going. "Sadness, like every feeling, comes and goes." As I'm talking I'm opening up my work binder, picking up the shiny gel pen that I haven't yet lost affixed to my binder and I do a lazy sideways spiral on the back of the crisis assessment form that was there with his name on it. "Sadness comes and goes, like this." My finger did a slow trace of the side of the spiral going slowly down. His eyes followed my finger going down the "y" axis on one parabola part of the spiral - he watched with his little shoulders slumped, his eyes leaking silently. "We feel sad - sometimes so sad that it hurts." My finger kept moving to the bottom of the down slope, but then started flowing up the other side of the loop, slowly moving up and up. "But that doesn't ever last, because if we allow it, we get to feel the good feelings." I kept talking, my finger rising up slowly, "We get to have good moments with friends, and trips to cool places, or college, or the really awesome things. We just have to keep living and seeing where things go." His eyes kept moving, flooding with fresh tears. I stopped, as if I was getting bored of what I was talking about. "Why not just go home, play some videogames and sleep off this feeling?"
He laughed, which startled me. "That's what got me in this place in the first place." He articulated it well and it made my smile.
That's when he animatedly told me about a multi person online social game that he's been playing without his mother knowing, at first with school friends but later he made friends within the game itself. He told me that his avatar was a female, whose origin and life he detailed as if he was talking about himself.
I allowed myself to get immersed in his explanation of this other life he has built in this game - trying to not compare it to the lifestyle I nurtured
playing World of Warcraft, but also understanding that he has fully projected himself in this reality.
The more he talked about it, the lighter his affect became and the more enlivened he seemed. He spoke of the drama between his "friends" and everything. I felt pride for his ability to be himself this way.
"My mom saw my login, and she found my avatar." It was jarring the way he became panicked and afraid again. "And now she thinks I'm gay and evil." His big eyes grew even wider and he cried again.
I was focusing on my breathing and then after a beat, "What happened when she found out?"
He started speaking very fast, in one breath. "She beat me with a belt, and then took her bat out and hit me in the head." He said this super casually, but was rubbing his head absentmindedly and looking around like if the room was going to close in on him.
I focused harder on my breathing, "Where else did she hit you?" I heard myself say this, like a robot. There was no notice of the fact that I tried hard not to notice how fuckin adorable he was, with his light brown eyes his dark skin, and his little lips. Also that he looked like he could be my son, with his light skin and dark curly hair. Tried to keep the abject rage in my chest by flooding the tightness there with fresh air.
He looked terrified of me and made a show to take it all back when he noticed my line of questioning. I leaned closer, "Please tell me. I want to make sure you're safe, that' sit."
Before I even finished, he was pointing at his arms and back. "She hit me all over here... and my head."
I peered closer at his head and noticed no bumps. This made me feel relieved. "Are you comfortable showing me your arm or shoulder?" My words were coming out automatically before I could even stop myself. A quick glimpse of the random mirror leaned against the marker board reflected the fact that the whole time I was the object of calm.
He sat a little closer to me, a little too close. My body stayed unflinching. Like if it was nothing he pulled up his shirt, all the way to his head and turned his back to me. The only thing I allowed myself to feel was my stomach seize. His back had long dark red slashes lined all the way across each side of his shoulders and back. The lashes were a heavy contrast to his skin. My fatigue was real as I stared. I felt myself wanting to pass my hand down his little shaking back, little dark freckles sprinkled on his sharp shoulder blades.
"These must hurt a lot..." It's all I could say.
He nodded. "It's not that bad. She was really mad."
I asked him to turn around and he was speaking excitedly, "If I go home today, I'll just apologize and she'll just get over it. Right?" He started nervously laughing, and all I could do was look at him concerned. "She's hit me before, so it's not a big deal. I shouldn't have done that."
He kept rambling, but my brain was buzzing with the things that had to be done. "You're not gonna tell her right?"
I sighed slowly.