When Eddie Turnbull told me to “fuck off and die,” my first inclination was to grab him by the ears and turn his baseball cap the right way round, using his neck as the pivot. But, being a self-aware Child and Youth Care practitioner, I quickly realized that my desire to punish came from the sense of powerlessness I experienced in early childhood. As a professional, I understood how his hostility toward me was actually a projection drawn from his unexpressed anger toward his father. So, thanks to my knowledge and training, I was able to avoid jumping straight into the old counter-transference trap (Bush, 2001).
Frustrated by his inability to draw me into his pathological relational system, Eddie let fly with a stream of well-worn obscenities and stormed off to his room, slamming the door for good measure. This behavior was clearly symptomatic of his A.D. (Attachment Disorder) that had given rise to his A.D.D. (Attention Deficit Disorder) and, subsequently, his C.D.D. (Chronic Defiance Disorder). For Eddie, this episode was just another crisis; for me it was an opportunity for intervention.
Stepping deftly out of the energetic flow (an ancient Buddhist technique) I took a breath and calmly considered my options. An immediate confrontation would probably set off a power struggle in which his negative behavior would be reinforced by my negative attention, and this was the pattern that needed to be changed. Taking a behavioral stance, the most appropriate decision would be to withhold reinforcement and wait for a more pro-social response. But such disturbed behavior usually stems from more deeply-rooted problems and the most obvious behavioral solutions are not always the most effective in the long run. Eddie was very adept at setting up snot-fights and each confrontation served to reaffirm a negative self-image developed over years of rejection and abandonment. Cognitively, this was all held together by Eddie’s pervasive belief that he was unlovable and that nobody would be there for him when the chips were down. So here was an opportunity to let him know that I would not abandon him while helping him to reframe his self-defeating beliefs. But I would need to choose my moment carefully – it was all about timing.
As I waited patiently for the window of opportunity, Brenda Parkinson emerged from her room at the end of the hallway and shuffled toward me. She was obviously distressed and crying. As she approached our contact boundary, her whimpers turned into sobs – huge gulping, tear-pumping sobs. I noticed she’d been picking at her scabs again and a trickle of fresh blood ran down her forearm. My savior syndrome was immediately triggered but, once again, my self-awareness came to the fore. I am a middle child and my compulsive need to assuage the distress of others was a matter of survival in my family. Stepping out of the flow again (such a good technique) my mind was able to focus on Brenda’s treatment plan. “I see you've been picking again,” I said, assuming the prescribed neutral stance. “I want you to wash the wound and then apply the peroxide as usual.”
Her sobbing stopped immediately. “You don’t give a
shit about me,” she said, wiping her tears with her arm and smearing the
blood across her cheek.
“We’ll talk later,” I told her.
"Go talk to your ass,” she suggested unkindly and shuffled off in the direction of the bathroom. But my mind had already returned to the problem of Eddie – it was all about differential treatment.
As luck would have it, this untimely little episode with Brenda completely scuttled my timely intervention with Eddie. He must have heard our discussion and, realizing that my attention had been stolen, proceeded to launch a violent assault upon his immediate surroundings.
Intervention was now more about de-escalation and I was moving swiftly in the direction of his room when the damned bell went off. Someone was leaving by the emergency exit. It could only have been Billy Maccleswaith who had sworn on his mother’s chainsaw that he would take off before their next family therapy session. The thought of “Bronco” Billy riding rough-shod around the local community caused me to do a quick about-turn, at which point I charged straight into the bedraggled Brenda who had chosen this precise moment to shuffle out of the bathroom with her bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
I could certainly appreciate that she was surprised by this sudden breach of etiquette but her reaction was worthy of an Oscar. First she hurled herself against the wall with a scream that completely overpowered the infernal bell. Then, after a dramatic pause, she slid slowly to the floor with a pitiful moan and proceeded to empty the entire contents of the bottle all over the new hallway carpet. At this point Jim Holden, our Executive Director made his entry, stage left. As an administrator, Jim was big on accountability and, with a body slumped on the floor, a maniac destroying a room at the end of the hallway, our new carpet slowly changing colour and a bell from Hell clanging in the background, there was much to account for.
Being self-aware I realized that I was slipping out of presence and entering the state known as “fragmentation” (Cline, 1960) – that terrifying melt-down of the self that completely obliterates all sense of worthiness and competence. My only option was to bracket off all that was happening around me (a useful cognitive technique) and access my deepest inner resources.
In this altered state of consciousness, Eddie, Brenda and Billy were systematically erased (temporarily of course) and even Jim, who was screaming something about the cost of carpets, was rendered silent and impotent as I struggled to reassemble the pieces of my fractured self.
Somewhere on the periphery of my awareness, I did get a glimpse of Billy Maccleswaith leaving the TV room to join the party but it was irrelevant information.
During the subsequent impromptu supervision session in the staff office, Jim was able to deal with his frustrations through a moderately contained catharsis and I could certainly appreciate where he was coming from. Jim came from a devoutly Catholic family in which authority was a primary theme and his obsession with the hallway carpet clearly revealed his parent’s preoccupation with materialistic values. During his review of the current circumstances I detected a linear and dichotomized cognitive style characteristic of a failure to achieve “object constancy” at the critical developmental stage. His attitude toward me clearly lacked accurate empathy and non-conditional positive regard and I could only assume that Jim had problems with intimacy. Yet, as my employer, he did not have to explain to me why he had decided to test the emergency door on that particular afternoon and he had every right to suggest that I might benefit from additional training and supervision.
But that’s all about Jim. For me it was a useful
learning experience and I thanked Jim for his insights and suggestions.
When he finally left, I went back upstairs to inspect the damage and had
to admit that his concern for the carpet was not entirely spurious. As I
pondered on the juxtaposition of human and material values, Eddie
Turnbull poked his head from his bedroom door and grinned. “You got some
shit eh?” he asked rhetorically. I turned away and walked slowly back to
the staff office. “Fuck off and die Eddie Turnbull,” I whispered – once
the door was closed, of course.
Bush, G. Jnr. (2001) How I Bagged Dad: And Other Tales of Mass Destruction. Al Qaida Press.
Cline, Patsy (1960) I Fall To Pieces. MCA Records.
This feature: Cederick (2003) For Whom the Bell Tolls. Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, 16, 4. pp. 53-55.