This month I am writing in response to my dear friend, Dr. Narayan’s request for me to share my experience of guiding a young woman toward a new beginning. This woman had some previous involvement with the juvenile justice system, but this was the least of her problems considering her time behind bars was probably the safest she ever felt. Naomi had suffered abuse worse than I had ever come across in text books about trauma, and still to this day, I have yet to encounter any story that can compare to the horrendous details this young woman shared with me in my first year of experience as a student-therapist.
Everyday she sat in front of me with a story from her week that was beyond my imagination. I would think to myself, “where should I start? Empathy, sure, I should reflect back emotion.” The problem being that she spoke about her abuse as if it was a grocery list, so any empathic response would run the risk of being a reflection of my emotion and not hers. Then I would have another brilliant idea straight from my psychology text book, “Okay, I know what to do, I will make some great reflective statements, reframing what she has said in a way that has the potential to bring her a deeper understanding of her problem,” but any insight she had only made her feel more damaged and overwhelmed by the idea that she may never escape her traumatic past. So I would try to take it slow, helping her to digest one blood curdling experience at a time, but then Naomi would remind me that our 50 minutes together were the only minutes in her week when she felt safe and protected and she did not want to use this time feeling unsafe. And because concrete coping skills, such as breathing exercises, only made her more anxious, I was left to one choice–just think positive!
If you are another therapist reading this, you might be thinking of a 100 great ideas that my supervisor and I could not come up with, and if you are not a therapist you are probably just glad it was not you in my position. Either way, at the time, I didn’t even believe that thinking positive was helpful to anyone, let alone my traumatized client, but when I would hear myself reporting my technique to my supervisor, I knew it was the right thing to do. “Well Ms. Supervisor, I simply sit there and think in my head thoughts such as, ‘everything will be okay,’Naomi will be safe and protected, and she will overcome this abuse.’ As I think these thoughts Naomi relaxes more in her chair and she ceases to pick at her skin and it is the only time she will touch upon the mom she wishes she could replace with her monster abusive mom. And Ms. Supervisor, if I try to empathize, reflect, reframe or give her a coping skill, she sits stiff as if I am about to strike her. So, Ms. Supervisor I think my job is to just sit there with her and think positive thoughts. I apologize if my interventions have no theoretical or empirical basis, but it is all I feel comfortable doing with Naomi.” My supervisor agreed.
Naomi began to come to sessions several times a week and when she was forced to move far away, she still traveled hours to come sit in front of me as I thought positively about her life. She told me that I helped her know that it was possible for her to feel safe and knowing she could feel safe meant a whole world of possibilities for new beginnings.
Many of the girls in the juvenile justice system have suffered abuse and many of these girls simply need someone to listen to them without trying to make it better. The Create A Path program will not only be a place for these girls to be protected, but will also be a place where those in the counseling field can learn when to intervene and when to simply think positive thoughts.