I remember a teen I worked with long ago; some people just stay with you forever for lots of different reasons. (Heads up: This is a pretty dark memory.) I was very young and way in over my head as a therapist at a residential treatment center in a large city.
I’ll call him Sam. Sam was 16 and the youngest of the boys born to his parents in a very small rural community. The older brothers had long histories of vandalism, theft and general trouble making in this tiny town. Beyond that, their dad was the town cross dresser. He would show up on Friday afternoon to pick up his youngest son in a 5 day beard, a dress, tidy shoulder length hair, a full set of beautifully manicured nails, and heels. Though this is something with which our culture now struggles openly, back then it was rarely seen in public in urban areas and unheard of in the country. Well, unheard of except in this little town where Sam, his brothers and his dad had a LOT of visibility. Everywhere he went he was recognized as the youngest from this fairly notorious family. He came to the attention of authorities when he and a friend broke into the local elementary school and vandalized it to the tune of many thousands of dollars.
When I met him, he had just spent 9 months in ICU and rehabilitation. The story was that his body had been found in the middle of the highway late one night. He had suffered horrific injuries to his torso and face requiring multiple reconstructive surgeries. In spite of all that effort, he still bore terrible scars. He had no memory of how any of this had happened but there was no sign of an automobile accident at the scene. It appeared that his body had been dumped there, left for dead.
Part of our conversations focused on his plans for a livelihood upon achieving adulthood. To my pleasant surprise, he had a dream for his future: he wanted to drive his own cab. One afternoon we had to focus on the fight he had gotten into at school. Seems a kid had noticed his scars and called him Frankenstein. Sam just lost it and had to be pulled off the guy by school authorities.
I understood shame about family of origin. I understood anger about being judged unfairly and teased unmercifully. I understood what it was like to try to fit in in high school. I had no frame of reference and no avenue to empathy, however, for other obstacles faced by this boy. I did know that Sam wasn’t very self-aware nor even minimally inclined to reflect on the feelings that motivated his behavior. So now what?
I went for the only concrete, obvious thing I could: how he got those scars and the little town that gave them to him. I said, “Sam, I have an idea. Now that you live in this big city, far away from your home town, nobody knows anything about you at all. They don’t know that you almost died. They don’t know that you were found in the middle of the highway. They don’t know your daddy or your brothers. You are completely anonymous. Since the real story is so sad, so scary, why not come up with one that is easier? Why not just make something up? The world is not your home town. Nobody has to know your real story unless you think you can trust them with it.”
Many years later (Sam had been gone for a long time) the agency director came to tell me Sam was asking to see me. He took me out to see the cab he had driven over. He told me that the most important thing anyone had ever said to him was that he was anonymous. Then he thanked me for that.
I share this story for a couple of reasons:
- You never really know if you got it right.
- Seldom will you be given any credit when you do get it right.
- You really do have to trust your gut when you are way out of your depth but there is nobody to pass off to.
- Don’t be afraid to take things down to the most basic level of honesty.
- Sometimes the best thing to do is lie (not to be confused with offering false testimony).
- Remember the relationships that teach you the most about being human.
Thanks for listening. Take care of yourself.