Monday, May 11, 2009

Sarita’s Eyebrows

The door from the Girl’s Unit slammed open and Sarita erupted out, screaming: "I am not going to the...mall. I will not go to the mall. Every night he wants us to go to the mall. And I have to get my eyebrows done tonight. Someone needs to take me. Now. I am not going to the mall."

It was amazing how long and loud and with how many swears that girl could scream about not going to the mall. And I was in my office, working on a grant proposal, and I was on my last nerve just as she was. So the thoughts that were going through my mind were: "surely it can’t be required that she go to the mall. Would someone PLEASE come and tell her she doesn’t have to go to the mall so she will BE QUIET?!?!?"

It has since occurred to me that this was an illustration of a choice point for our treatment philosophy. How do we understand what is going on here?

One interpretation is that Sarita is a spoiled, demanding manipulative girl who just wants what she wants when she wants it. She wants everyone to forget about everything else except for what she needs. She freaks out every time any one says no to her. She thinks she’s special.

And that leads naturally to: well, she is going to have to learn. People can’t just drop what they are doing whenever she wants something. She will just have to wait her turn. We will have to teach her to stop yelling and disturbing people. That’s not going to get her what she wants. We won’t do one thing for her as long as she is making this kind of fuss.

Maybe there is another way to see it. Maybe, in fact, Sarita has very rarely gotten what she wants. In her life, few people have listened to her or cared about what she wants. She is not the center of any one’s universe. As she has grown up in situations of chaos, and then equally as she has lived in situations of congregate care, the only way she has been able to get anything has been to yell as loud as she can.

Maybe when she wants something (to get her eyebrows done) and someone else does not seem to be listening and is just proceeding with their plans (to go to the mall) the words in her head go something like this:
He is not listening.
If I don’t get my eyebrows down I will look ugly and no one will like me.
He does not hear what I need.
He does not care what I need.
No one hears or cares what I need.
I have no one, I have nobody.
I am no one.
I am nobody.

And then she starts to feel unbearable emotions- despair, hopelessness...
Which come out in the intensity and pressure of her speech.

Where would that thinking lead us?

It does not mean that it is okay for Sarita to scream and swear when ever she wants something. That would surely not give her a life worth living.

It does not mean that we should immediately drop everything and take her to get her eyebrows done in order to quiet her down.

But what it does mean is that we do not approach Sarita with lectures about how she should be quiet and stop bothering people and she can’t always get what she wants (which believe me, she knows).

Instead, we start with "Sarita, what is the matter?"

And then, our part of the conversation includes statements like:
You definitely do not want to go to that mall.
You have had it with that mall.
It’s very important to you to have your eyebrows done as soon as possible.
And where do you have to go to have that done?
So what you want to do is go to...
And you feel very strongly about this...

Because, in fact, Sarita will gradually stop screaming when she feels she is heard when she is talking.

And that is an experience we can give her.

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