Updated: Jan 1
Image courtesy of Markus Spiske
Once upon a time (many moons ago) in the age of plaid, Ace of Base, and baby doll dresses, I worked with a beautiful little girl named Katie. I was only 21 at the time, and had accepted an internship at a residential psychiatric facility for emotionally disturbed children. I had no reference point at that time for that term “emotionally disturbed”. I was young and naïve. And, while I was well-versed in Freud, Jung, Piaget and my own commitment to saving children, I was ill-prepared for the horrors Katie and the other children had endured to achieve such a diagnosis. Nor was I prepared for the extent of those horrors and how they would manifest in Katie’s behavior.
Night time was the scariest time for Katie since this was when most of the abuse had taken place in the care of her family—under the cover of darkness. As soon as the sun would set, Katie would pace the hallways repeatedly muttering to herself in a high-pitched baby-like voice sometimes slapping children nearby. This happened when she was triggered, of course. And these triggers could be anything… the way someone looked at her or a sound on the television. Anything sensory could induce flooding of traumatic memories causing an overwhelmed nervous system and ultimately for Katie to regress and act out.
On one such August night, after speaking to a family member, Katie ran outside onto the playground and refused to move. I’d learned over the months, that trying to convince her to make even the slightest movement would only cause more resistance and prolong her distress and acting out behavior. So, that night I decided to try something new. I sat down very quietly a few feet away. The black rubber foam covering the ground had finally cooled and the fog had cleared enough for us to see the stars. Katie was waling at the top of her lungs and even though I wanted to comfort her (and make her suffering end) I just let her be until her cries made way for heaves.
I looked up at the stars for a while not saying anything. What hung in the air between us was a slow, soft silence. And I allowed it to be there. I was determined not to try to fix anything. I had to let her come to me on her own. She had to feel in control. So, I continued to look up at the stars and I steadied my own breathing. After a few moments, and in between sniffles, Katie moved a little closer to me.
“Jenna, why do you love me?” she said needing reassurance.
“Because Katie you are a beautiful, kind, caring, smart, and wonderful person.” I said gently.
“I am?” she looked up at me in disbelief.
“Yes, sweetheart you are. And I’m so lucky I get to spend time with you every day.”
Katie smiled a little when I said this, but I could tell she wasn’t convinced. I knew all those years of severe abuse had convinced her that she was unlovable. But even more importantly, I knew that my ability to be consistent with her and to love her unconditionally would be critical in helping her heal those places inside of her that were wounded and filled with shame. Katie inched a little closer again so that her head was almost touching my shoulder.
“Jenna? But, what about when you’re not here? What about when I miss you?”
I leaned in and allowed Katie’s head to rest against my shoulder then.
Pointing up at the sky I said, “Do you see that star right there? That is your star, Katie. Whenever you miss me or you need to feel close to me, you can always find that star. And when you look up you will know I am here with you. That my love for you is here.”
Katie took my hand and looked me in the eye, “But, what about when it’s foggy, how will I see our star?”
“Katie, you are such a smartie! You’re right. How about we make a star together that you can hang on your wall? That way when you can’t see the star in the sky you can always know I’m with you and that you are loved.”
Katie squeezed my hand and we lifted ourselves up off the ground and walked together to her room where her other roommates were sleeping. That night when she was tucked in bed I made her the star I promised out of cardboard and aluminum foil and hung it on her wall. We spent many subsequent bedtimes wishing on that star together when we couldn’t see our star in the sky. And to be honest, I forgot about that star over the years.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I learned about Flying Wish Paper, that my little Katie and our star came rushing back. Wait. You haven’t heard about Flying Wish Paper? I swear on all that is holy this is not a paid advertisement. Anyone who knows me knows I love Flying Wish Paper! I give it as gifts all the time for occasions like weddings, birthdays, Christmas stocking stuffers, and even when someone dear is grieving. Why? Because it’s an incredible thing to help people cherish the moment and to help them release when they need to. And for children, it’s so powerful to give them a little bit of magic when they need it . It’s also a way to remind children that they are always loved, that there is whimsy in life, and there is something greater than all of us tying the moments together and that force is LOVE.
I hope wherever you are reading this that you can find a little magic. Sometimes all we have to do is look up. And sometimes we need to create it with a little bit of ingenuity, cardboard and aluminum foil.