The walking wounded

Being our best Selves as parents means being containing, often in the face of intense feelings of hurt and anger in our children.  But how can we learn to be containing if we ourselves did not feel contained when we were developing?  Can we pick up a bowl-like sense of solidity along the paths of our life journeys?

Many years ago, when I was seeing my very first therapy clients, I had a lot of anxiety about whether I would ever be able to help anyone at all or just be revealed as an impostor who was bound to do more harm than good.  To compound matters, one of the great ironies of mental health treatment is that often the least experienced clinicians see the most disturbed clients.

And so it was that I sat in a tiny little office with thin walls listening to a fifteen-year-old girl tell me about how the Christmas lights were making her remember being taken to a motel when she was seven or eight, a motel with Christmas lights, a motel where her father raped her.  The girl was depressed, anxious, suffering intrusive flashback memories and having thoughts of suicide.  And she was a sweet, kind fifteen-year-old child.

I listened to her tale, I did what I had been trained to do and assessed her level of lethality and then made a contract with her in which she promised not to hurt herself as well as to call our agency if she became tempted to harm herself before our next appointment.  The hour ended and I felt agitated and exhausted.  I wished I could immediately take away her pain, and I dreaded that she might break her promise about not hurting herself.  And even if we helped her stay alive, how on earth do you “help” someone with that sort of problem?

My supervisor, George, was a seasoned therapist with a laconic calm and a kind, paternal presence.  I was not scheduled to see him for our weekly hour of supervision for a couple of days and I found myself pacing outside his door in the bare hallway of the community mental health clinic, hoping to catch him between clients for a touch-base.  Finally his session ended and I followed him like a dog hoping for something, anything, as he followed his customary between evening clients routine of going to the little kitchenette and pouring himself a cup of coffee.

“George!  I know it’s not my supervision time, but can I talk to you for a minute?”  He looked over the tops of his glasses as he made his coffee and patiently indicated that I was free to spill, which I did, quickly downloading all the horrible feelings which I had been holding for that poor child for nearly five or ten minutes.  I explained what I did in response, and admitted that it just seemed so overwhelmingly terrible that I had to tell him right away and couldn’t wait until Thursday.

George just took it all in, absorbing, containing, weighing and contemplating—all the while stirring his coffee.  Finally he looked at me, lips and eyes subtly rising into a compassionately wistful smile, “Ah… the walking wounded…” he said, as if he were bestowing the proper label, the one that would help me get a grip.  I watched him closely, hungry for wisdom, skills, containing.  His face enigmatically hinted at the vast storehouse of angst, misery and mistreatment that he had witnessed, sorted and filed in his heart and mind over the years.  My mouth was slightly open, but I had nothing to say.  He finally finished stirring his coffee and took a mindful sip, “And there’s millions of them,” he concluded.

He met my gaze and gave me the equivalent of a spirit hug.  It was an I-though moment of sacred and non-judged connection, one that it would take some years to more fully understand.  What he was saying, in part, was “Welcome to my world—calm your ego, and your grand wishes about rescuing and transforming others, pace yourself as this is a marathon and not a sprint—and when you’ve done this work for years you will be better able to handle the intensity, but you still will have no magic answer for a child raped by their own parent.”

That girl got through the holidays, she grew a little stronger and a little more conscious, and over time I was able to see her as much more than merely a victim.  Kids are resilient, and they can heal—even from the most grievous injuries, particularly if they are protected moving forward and given a chance to fully process their wounds.  Since that time I have worked with countless legions of walking wounded, and I’ve come to realize that we’re all wounded—it’s just a matter of degree; and I’ve come to believe that we’re all interconnected, so while I did not really want to hear about these horrible things, it was important for me to hear, and it was important for George to hear me, and even though you understandably don’t much like reading these disturbing words, perhaps it’s important for you to hear them as well. 

My hope is that I might take what I’ve learned from George, the humility and grounded compassion, and help us as a virtual community realize that we too have this grounded compassion—and that we too have a myriad of wounds; that between us we have sexual abuse, alcoholic parents, all manner of diagnoses mental and physical and many losses and disappointments.  Thus our gratitude mingles with our walking woundedness.

My further hope is that by confronting woundedness consciously, we reduce the darkly unconscious impulse that leads to further wounding.  Ask not for whom the coffee of compassion stirs, it stirs for thee—for you and me in our walking woundedness; yet also ask not who stirs the coffee, as it too is stirred by you and me—particularly when we choose to stand together in the service of all our collective children.  This may mean bearing witness to pain ranging from the passing tantrum to the deepest cuts, and sending love wherever we feel and intuit that it is needed—by whatever means we find at our disposal.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “The walking wounded”

  1. Laurie Says:

    There will be scars but the wounds do heal. Thank you.

  2. Ambrosia Says:

    As you are aware, the resiliency in children has been highly documented. There is also up and coming research involving transitional characters. Are you familiar with this research? It refers to persons who overcome their negative backgrounds and essentially start anew with their own families (or in their own lives).

    Very well written and informative. The “walking wounded” surround each of us.

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