Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Rubber Band Blooper

Emily looked like a Campbell’s Soup Kid.  She had a red page-boy haircut.  Her face was covered with freckles and she always had a huge grin.  But Emily’s grin was a mask.  She was very depressed.  I worked with her in the psychiatric hospital from the time she was 15 until she left us at 18.  I cared deeply for Emily.  Over that span she must have been taken to the Emergency Room at least seven times.  She repeatedly tried to choke herself.  She wanted to be dead.  
I would meet with Emily several times a week to talk about her demons.  Emotionally it was like trying to talk to a 9 year old.  We would just start to talk about her issues when she would change the subject.  However, there was one incident that took place during a therapy session that had a huge impact on me. 
Her history was poorly recorded.  The report said that her mother was crazy.  She was taken away from her mother when she was 3 years old.  Her mother had tried to cook her in the oven.  She then bounced from one foster home to the next.  To say the least, she was difficult.  Eventually, she would have to be moved.  She did have one wonderful loving family, who hung in there with her, until she was old enough that her self-injurious behaviors became lethal.  She then made the rounds of residential treatment centers and finally the psychiatric hospital. 
Sometimes when I was meeting with teenagers, we would play with the rubber bands.  Engaging them in games was an effective way to get them comfortable so that they could talk.  The rubber bands had been bought by the state under the concept of lowest bidder.  What that means was that the bands were totally useless.  Any tension on them and they would break.  The only thing I found they were good for was playing games with the kids.  Usually the fun was harmless: who could get the most bands into the waste basket.  But one day I made a mistake while shooting rubber bands with Emily.  
We were talking, laughing and having a game, when, I shot a rubber band right down Emily’s cleavage.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  I guess I wasn’t thinking.  Her response was immediate.  She seemed to go into overload.  She froze with a panic look on her face.  She was in shock and I didn’t know what to say.  But I knew I needed help.  I picked up the phone and called the unit.  Luckily, Linda the nurse picked up the phone and came right out to my office.  We must have processed (talked about) what happened for 45 minutes.  By the time we were done, Emily was again relaxed and forgiving.  I still felt terrible, but I knew that Emily and I were okay again.  
The guilty feeling stayed with me all week.  I couldn’t shake it.  I didn’t become a psychotherapist to make people more upset.  I was supposed to reduce stress and anxiety, not increase it.  I felt terrible.  As it turned out, the following week, we had one of our supervision sessions with Carl Whitaker, M.D.   I told Carl exactly what happened.  He listened to my description silently.  When I was done, he still didn’t say anything for a few more seconds.  I was sure he was going to chastise me for my behavior.  Then he spoke.
“That’s nothing.  Did I ever tell you about the time I was playing with the lighter while I was talking with a schizophrenic girl?  I accidentally lit her hair on fire and whoosh.  In seconds, she was totally bald.  The hair just went right up.  And you know burning hair really smells.  It took me a month to get the smell out of my office.”  
That was all he needed to say.  I immediately felt better.