The following was written by Judith Gable, MSW, LCSW, from “Unlikely Transformations: Kids in Prison and the Clinical Psychotherapy Interns We Train to Work with Them.” Judith wrote an article describing how Acknowledge mental health professionals teach our clinical interns to work with and meet the needs of traumatized youth.
Theresa’s mom had recently overdosed on heroin. Her dad had a second family in Texas, so she was living in her fifth foster home when she was arrested and taken to juvenile hall after she pulled a knife on a teacher at school. In juvenile hall, Theresa continually provoked teachers and peers with “f-you” and “I’ll kick your ass.”
In therapy, Theresa only wanted to talk about her boyfriend. She was terrified that he would leave her while she was in juvenile hall. At the same time, she cavalierly talked about the ways the boyfriend kept her from her family and friends, and punched her when she tried to assert herself. The intern never judged Theresa or this relationship. Instead, this therapist helped her explore her feelings and her experiences in this and other relationships.
Theresa pushed and pulled the therapist, continually testing whether the intern actually cared about her. She refused appointments, told stories of her fights on the unit, and defiantly showed the therapist tattoos she’d scratched into her arms in her cell. The intern honored Theresa’s struggles, and continued to come back week after week, curious and compassionate. Eventually, Theresa was able to talk about the pain of a lifetime of feeling unworthy and unlovable.
With her body shifting in her chair, and her foot tapping anxiously, she shared her growing wish to have a boyfriend who would treat her well. She shared her fears that her little sister was making the same mistakes she had, and how she wished she could do something to stop it. She talked about wanting to do better in school, and maybe even become a nurse. She cried.
The therapist helped Theresa bring forth the softer parts of herself she kept hidden, pointing out the ways in which Theresa cared deeply for other people. In the safety of their relationship, Theresa began to blossom. She started trusting a teacher she said was “cool”, and shared the poetry she’d written. She smiled when she talked about working in the school garden with the volunteer who came each week.
With a growing sense that people could actually care about her, and a budding ability to see herself as someone valuable, she began to question her relationship with her boyfriend and made moves to disengage from him. Significant growth rarely moves in straight lines, so Theresa broke up and got back together with the boyfriend 3 times during her time of being incarcerated. But, by April, she was done with him, and made a promise to herself to stay away from guys for awhile, build her self confidence, earn more school credits, and show her sister a different path.
Theresa’s story is not a story of radical behavioral change. She still occasionally picked fights with girls who disrespected her, and dropped the f-bomb with teachers she didn’t like. However, the shifts that Theresa was able to make in the short time she was in therapy, had a deep impact on the foundation of her sense of self. Her experience in therapy showed her a glimpse of the positive experiences she could start to expect from the world.