It’s either a morbid curiosity or a sense of masochism that one of my favorite things to do at work is read kids’ files. They’re really clinical assessments, a brief history of their lives summed up in anywhere from 10 to 12 paragraphs, in totally objective, matter-of-fact language and nomenclature.
There are a couple of schools of thought about this at work. Some people read them because, like me, they’re curious, and also feel that it can be beneficial when you’re dealing with a kid, especially a particularly troubled one, to know what you’re dealing with. Other people think it’s irrelevant; we treat all the kids the same, and expect the same things of them, and apply all the same non-violent and therapeutic interventions, approaches and techniques, regardless of their diagnosis or background. Plus a lot of people find them terribly upsetting. Contained within those files are such horrific stories of abuse and violence that I wouldn’t believe could be inflicted upon anyone, especially children, if I didn’t know that they were real. If half of those kids’ histories were in a movie, there’s no way I would believe that anyone could come out of it, even as well-adjusted as some of these kids are. Relatively.
The stories, in fact, bother me quite a bit. I guess I’ve discovered (well, I started discovering it at the hospice in Austin), that I’m fairly good at letting things go once I get home. Some of the kids I think about a lot; others not so much. One such kid’s file I read at work on Saturday, and I must say, out of all of them, hers has probably bothered me and stayed with me the most, pretty much constantly it’s been buzzing around in my consciousness for the last 2 days.
This all part of working in the mental health field. Paradoxically, it takes people who are incredibly sensitive and intuitive to people’s feelings and natures, but on the other hand, if you’re overly sensitive about it, and don’t learn somewhere along the way to somehow steel your heart and soul and just clinically detach, you’re going to be doomed. Working in residential treatment is definitely not something I’m in for the long haul. It’s been an incredible education already, though, just the 3 months that I’ve been there.
For the most part I like the kids. There are always the ones that no matter how sympathetic you try to be, or how awful their situation was from which they came, you just can’t stand. The ones you dread seeing, or hope and pray to god every moment that you’re there that they don’t “blow out” and have to be restrained. Or that maybe someone will come and take them away for an off-campus visit while you’re on your shift. But that rarely happens. For obvious reasons.
It would take a person with ice water running in their veins, though, to not be affected by the blow outs. Naturally your adrenaline kicks in when someone attacks you, either with their fists, or a telephone sitting on a desk (which happened to me a couple of weeks ago), or their mouth (getting bitten is a rite of passage there, though I’ve managed to avoid it thus far). The “holds” can sometimes last 5 minutes, or they can sometimes last 2 hours. Those are the ones that really try your patience, that make you wanna just smack the kid and say, “Shut the fuck up, and pull it together!” But one thing I’ve noticed, no matter how vicious their physical or verbal attacks upon you might be, once we’ve exhausted them and broken down their energy, they blame themselves. Invariably.
They generally curl up into a ball, either on the floor, or in a corner, and sob and say over and over again how much they hate themselves and how much they want to die. Sometimes they beg for their parents who have mercilessly abused them, or neglected or abandoned them. It’s heart-wrenching. More than the files and history, this is the shit I take home with me. Sometimes I like to talk about it, sometimes I don’t.
Having grown up in a home with so much unconditional love, support, and security, my mind can’t even fathom the depth of emptiness and pain that must be within those kids. And the anger they have somehow feels justified, and it’s no wonder they sometimes hate us. Even kids that have put up enormous psychic guards are astonishingly inept at containing their feelings. It’s only as we get older, I think, that people really begin to get self-conscious about expressing things like anger and sadness in front of other people.
As a staff member, I would like to think we are trying to get kids more comfortable with sadness. If we can show them that we’ll still care about them, and comfort them and try to make them feel better when they’re sad, even if they’ve just tried to kill us, then maybe, just maybe, we can help a few of them become more comfortable with that sadness, and help curb such violent acting-out. Sometimes I think they don’t have a chance. But I have to think that for at least a few of them, there’s hope for someday having a normal life, even a normal emotional life. Otherwise it would all be far too defeating.