© 2002 Franklin Cameron.
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To Thine Own Self Be True

by Franklin Cameron, Psy.D., LPC, CAC III

Billy had been homeless for two years before drifting into town and seeking refuge at a homeless shelter for adolescents. He had just turned 19. His case manager referred him to me for counseling after he had transitioned into the shelter’s halfway house. My job was to empower him in his emerging role as a self-sufficient young adult. In the halfway house he enjoyed his own private room, plus kitchenette and bath. A condition of remaining there was employment. He had to work 35 hours a week and pay some rent. When we started working together, Billy was unemployed and in danger of being returned to the dormitories at the shelter. He desperately did not want to lose his private rooms and was actively job hunting. Billy was a pleasant looking, well spoken young man; yet no one would hire him. On the face it, this didn’t make sense.

Billy’s parents had divorced when he was a preteen. He had lived with his father, who eventually kicked him out because he had gotten tired of his son’s penchant for stealing. Billy’s unmarried sister had an infant son and lived with their mother. The whole family had been involved in motorcycle gangs for two generations. Everyone was enthusiastic about tattooing. Billy’s grandmother was said to have sported at least 80 tattoos. His mother’s moniker was “Rage,” which I’m told was emblazoned on her bosom. After leaving his father’s home, Billy went to live with her. However, she had remarried a man whom Billy claimed would knock his sister around when he got angry at her. Billy forcibly intervened and was "invited" to move out. At the same time, Billy dropped out of high school.

Homeless in his home town meant hanging out at friends’ houses or killing time alone in the park by day, and sleeping under bridges at night and smoking a lot of marijuana and crystal methamphetamine.

When I met Billy he had already earned his GED through an education program at the homeless shelter. He was also off drugs. What he still had, however,
was the image of three big marijuana leaves tattooed on the back of his hand. His last job had been as a dishwasher: The restaurant closed three weeks after he was hired. He wanted to upgrade to something better, like catering. A lot of the jobs he was applying for, such as food service, involved interfacing with the public in some way. Billy had begun to wonder if the reason he didn’t get call backs was because of the very provocative tattoo. Both his father and his father’s father wore identical tatoos on their hands. It was a family tradition.

When Billy’s father kicked him out for good that last time, he said, “You’ll always be a bum.” Billy’s greatest fear was that
this might be true. Not being able to get a job was threatening to fulfill the prophecy. Ironically, Billy had acquired the marijuana tattoo long after breaking with his family—the week he earned his GED at the shelter and was to begin his life as a working young adult. We looked at all the reasons, both logical and practical, why the tattoo should be removed. The homeless shelter was in contact with a surgeon who would remove visible tattoos for free. Billy and I discussed this option. I was on the verge of moving the conversation to how and when it would be removed when Billy said, “The tattoo stays.”

I’ve met a lot of social workers and teachers who say they don’t believe in psychotherapy; or at the least, they don’t understand what it purports to do. This is a perfect example of where a kid crosses over from case management or education into counseling. The territory of practical/rational choices, and their consequences, is within the domain of education. But where the ground dips into water, when emotional impulses and motivations become
so deeply felt you can’t even see bottom, then you’ve entered the realm of counseling. In one you cover the surface, even climb and dig. In the other, you swim and dive. It would have been so reasonable to debate further with Billy about the consequences of his choices. However, this wasn’t about being reasonable. As a therapist, I leaned back in my chair and said, “That tattoo means a lot to you, doesn’t it, Billy?”

My intention was to
open a space in which it would be safe for Billy to not just think and talk, but to feel all that his tattoo represented to him. Billy became very quiet. I remained quiet. Then, he began to weep.

More things get handed down in families than mother’s wedding china or grandpa’s old brass bed. Families
pass down curses and blessings, as well. Surely, “You’ll always be a bum” was a curse. Now this young man was potentially on the verge of breaking free. Yet he remained loyal to a family tradition that would seriously limit his range of employment and adaptability in the world. It was as though Billy’s family were reaching out through his psychic history and curtailing his liberation. Yet, it was Billy who was doing it now. He had indeed taken over the task of fulfilling of the curse. What’s more, he was passionately committed to doing so.

As we talked, Billy explained how inside he was a really wonderful and kind person. It was deeply important to him that other people realize this. Appearances should be of no consequence, he believed. For all the people in the world like him—who are misjudged because of
superficial quirks of anatomy or grooming, and not valued for their deeper selves—Billy was determined to win through. He was willing to prove the point with his own survival. It was a matter of life and death for him that he be valued, perhaps loved, for who he really was—not for who he appeared to be.

The marijuana tattoo had become quite a complex symbol for Billy. Was it a symbol of defiance or hope? Billy said he did not believe in love or trust. He did not believe love could actually exist between two people. Yet, with that tattoo he was apparently still trying to get from strangers the very experience that is the basic building block of love: unconditional positive regard. He still hoped it was possible, in spite of all his disclaimers to the contrary. At the same time, he was determined to defy everyone who had dedicated themself to help him in order to hold onto a family tradition that had come to symbolize
his defiant determination to be himself.

When he had lived at home, he defied his father by shoplifting. Now, living in the world, he defied society by wearing the tattoo. In “Hope for Kids Who Go Wrong,” we discussed how stealing can sometimes be a
gesture of hope. Now, Billy was showing me how defiance can be a gesture of hope, too. Billy hoped that he would ultimately be seen and valued for who he really was.

As we mature from dependent infant to independent adult, there are many developmental requirements and challenges along the way. Challenges are
tasks we must master for ourselves, such as learning how to tolerate separations from our parents when we are old enough to start school. Making friends outside the family is another developmental task—some kids find it a bigger challenge than others. Requirements, on the other hand, are things we must depend on others to provide. Early on, these include food, shelter and, as research increasingly shows, being tenderly and respectfully embraced by our parents or caregivers.

We humans are magnificently complex creatures. Our emotional needs could be said to equal our physical needs. One of these needs begins to come into play even as we suckle at our mother’s breast. In that most intimate of holding environments, it is the need to be seen by the people we love and depend on. By seen, I don’t mean just looked at. I mean seen into. I mean
mirrored, witnessed and delighted in.

As we mature from infancy through adolescence, how we are mirrored by those we depend on can have enormous impact on how we experience ourselves. When a parent mirrors, it means the parent is
reflecting the child. Some of us, however, experienced just the opposite as children. Maybe our parents were rather rigid and found it difficult to tolerate styles of behavior that were different from their own. Or, maybe our parents were needy or emotionally fragile. When they became parents they still had a lot of unmet needs of their own; needs they imagined their children should fulfill. In order to be seen or win approval, as children of such parents, we often found ourselves having to relinquish our natural way of being in order to serve and take care of our parents.

Children who must learn too early to adapt their natural impulses to comply with, or mirror, a parent could be said to become estranged from themselves. It’s speculated that adults who years later say things like, “nothing means anything to me,” possibly started out as overly adapted infants or children. Great success and seemingly wonderful relationships ultimately bring no real joy because these people did not create their lives from
the authentic center of their being.

Looking back over all the adolescents I’ve worked with, I would say that the most oppositional stances taken by kids—the most rageful, resistant behaviors—often stem from a deeply felt sense that their parents or caregivers
do not know or value who they really are. Usually, the kids don’t know themselves. But they do know this: To comply falsely with what people expect them to be is tantamount to spiritual suicide.

Believe it or not, the road to healing, though bumpy, is shorter for a kid like Billy than one who has given up—surrendered his or her kingdom, so to speak—and mutely
complies and trades authenticity for safety or approval. Consequently, I very much respected his defiance. Based upon these assumptions, I saw it as a relatively healthy starting place from which I hoped to bring him back into relationship—with me, with society, and with himself.

Truly, Billy was looking for more than just a job. To seek and expect unconditional positive regard from an employer? That’s something you’re supposed to get from your mother and father, not your boss!

My work with Billy ceased to be about adapting to the realities of economic life. We parked that concern to the side for a while. We let the world stop. We created a space in which he could experience being accurately reflected, witnessed and valued as himself for himself—not for his usefulness to others. If there is a pearl at the center point of therapy, it is this space, it is this experience. Without it, no
real opportunity for change or growth is possible.

It has also been my experience, that the act of witnessing a kid in such a space can be almost magical. I’ve seen amazing turnarounds in adolescents when their parents or teachers stopped confusing compliance with being responsible, or moral or respectful. Ironically, a child who
feels accurately reflected and valued can learn how to compromise because we humans are relational creatures to our core. Children who do not feel accurately reflected will often fight, resist, and sabotage all efforts to control or even help them. When asked “Why?” by exasperated parents and teachers, their war cry usually is, “I don’t know!”

Some knowledge is
not for the mind alone. To answer the question, “Why?” these kids would have to access knowledge that can only be realized when it is experienced by the heart, body, mind and spirit simultaneously.

Children or adolescents who feel they are fighting for the very validity of their personhood can be really difficult, especially for teachers who must manage them in their classrooms. Each new teacher and each new classroom represents to such kids yet another situation in which
they will not be witnessed for who they really are. The first order of business will be to defy and not comply. This rarely goes down well. Most schools are structured not as containers that can bear but as containers that must control. Teachers are expected to control their students. Whether these students are capable of controlling themselves when the teachers aren’t around is not the school’s responsibility.

In my experience, however, truly gifted teachers do
have the ability to bear, and a big part of bearing is authentic witnessing. It is in the classrooms of such teachers that a troubled student can make a real turnaround. This is not just true for troubled kids. Almost every successful person I know, when asked about the emergence of their talent, will answer, “Well, when I was in the 7th grade (or 4th, or 5th, or 8th), there was this teacher…” And what did this teacher do? “She saw something in me no one else had ever seen. What’s more, she made me see, too.”

Never underestimate the restorative
power of witnessing and acknowledging another person’s strengths and grace and talent—especially in a person who is young. Witnessing can be like water on parched earth. Never underestimate the resiliency of kids. I’ve seen kids literally pivot off paths of self-destruction onto paths illuminated by self-esteem after working just one semester with a teacher who could witness and value them. Did Billy keep or remove that tattoo? I’m going to leave it for you to speculate. My purpose was to help transfer the essence of his identity and personal value from the image of a bunch of marijuana leaves back to him. Then, the choice of keeping or removing the tattoo would truly be his to make. Under such terms, concerns about defiance or compliance become irrelevant. Consequences cease to be things to which we must submit. They become choices that make sense in terms of what we really want, and who we really feel ourselves to be.

© 2002 by Franklin Cameron. All Rights Reserved.