Matt was in a crumpled heap across from me in the small padded room. Just twenty minutes before he was taking swings at us and cussing us out. We had to physically restrain him to prevent him from hurting anyone. It wore us out as much as it did him, but we could never match the emotional turmoil and exhaustion he felt.
He stopped fighting and unloaded everything he was worried about. Then, the realization of his actions and their consequences hit him and the crying started. He broke his streak of good choices because he reverted to old habits under stress.
Everyone else left the room. I sat cross-legged listening to him pour out self-denigrating comments, one after another, because his mother wouldn’t be happy when she found out. She wanted perfection from her son and wore her displeasure on her face like a badly matched foundation when he didn’t live up to her unreasonable expectations. She had no idea the pressure she put on him contributed to his current condition.
A tortured mess.
Can I make him understand I know what the crushing weight of all four walls pressing in with no catch to stop them feels like? We’re taught not to share personal information, to remain strictly professional. Maintain boundaries at all times.
A knot formed in the back of my throat that refused to be swallowed. It was like peering into a mirror pool holding my past and my heart broke for him. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and tell him it would be okay. I wanted to make it okay. But I didn’t believe in lying to the kids and I didn’t have a magic wand for the latter.
“Matt,” I said quietly.
He stirred and snuffled. “What?” he asked as his voice croaked.
“You,” I point to him, “are allowed to make mistakes. It’s how we learn to navigate life. You are in a place where you can make as many as you want safely. The fact that you are making them less than before you came to us means something.”
“But my mo-“
“Listen to me,” I said firmly.
He propped himself up on an elbow and stared intently at me with glistening brown eyes. His cheeks stained with ribbons of dried tears.
Hang the training. Matt needed to hear he’s not alone and I’m as human as he is. So I told him.
I told him how my parents placed too much responsibility on my shoulders. How I lost my childhood and wasn’t allowed to pursue my dreams.
“You’re fourteen, Matt. When you get out of here you need to be hanging out with friends, getting your first girlfriend, and going to school football games and dances. You’re not the adult your mom wants you to be. Enjoy the rest of your youth while you can and leave the adult stuff to her.”
He swiped the tears away with the back of his hand. “Can I have a hug?” he asked softly.
I nodded and crawled next to him. He wrapped an arm around me from the side and rested his blond mop on my shoulder. I settled my arm on his shoulders and squeezed him gently while I bit back my own tears.
I was walking a fragile line. His mother would likely construe my advice as undermining her authority. But I was the “parent” in the moment and I refused to let him continue to torment himself unnecessarily. If it led to him standing up for himself, I would happily accept my consequences if his mom complained.
“Thank you,” he said.
Paying the price is worth it in a case like this.
©Debi Smith, 2014