By guest blogger Lori Ann Perretta, PsyD
One September day in 2014 my first child client walked through the door of my office with his head down and hands clasped tightly together. He sat in silence for the entire session. Joey had selective mutism and did not speak a word to me for several weeks—an experience teachers and students had with him on a daily basis. I remember thinking to myself that first day, “Why in the world did I sign up for the school-based fellowship program? I have no idea what I am doing when treating kids.”
Between that first session and my last appointment in the SBP just a couple of weeks ago, a number of unforgettable relationships were born. Children not only brought me along on their healing journey, but they contributed to my own growth—both personally and professionally. It is through them that I learned how to play again—and how significantly life changes when we relearn how to play in the midst of the hardship and suffering life often throws our way.
In the midst of the suffering, children also bring joy and laughter. I recall a day when I was leading a group and a boy sat there staring at me inquisitively with his eyes squinting and lips smirking. I turned to him and asked what he was thinking. He said, “Miss Lori, are you married?” The girls in the group gasped and giggled in disbelief. I turned to him and asked, “Sam, what if I am married?” He responded, “Then I’m happy!” I then asked, “And what if I’m not married?” He looked at me and said, “Then I’m sad, because you’re old!” I cannot say that in the countertransference I did not feel the presence of my Italian mother!
Then there was James who showed me how to work with grief through active play. To my dismay, Fridays meant no more high heels for me—he had me running down the corridors and pretending I was his sidekick superhero. When I told him I would be leaving the school, he climbed onto the table in the fetal position and started shouting that there were sea creatures under the table and that I had to kill them off. For several weeks, I was killing sharks, a giant squid, and even a one-legged octopus. Then, he said it was his turn to save me from the creatures. In the midst of the action, I could still feel the weight of his sadness. I turned to James and asked, “Who will save me from these monsters when you’re not by my side next year?” He responded, “You’ll have to remember that I’m always in your heart.” In subsequent weeks, James literally ran from his sadness—running out of the classroom, jumping out of his therapy chair and heading towards the playground. I asked him to remember what he had learned—that he can now take a step back, calm his body, reflect, sit with his feelings, and share them with others. I asked, “Can you do that now? Can you think about what your feeling and tell me?” After a minute or two, his eyes lit up and he said, “Sure! Can I have two pick-up-sticks?” After I had handed them over, James turned pick-up sticks into drum sticks and my table into a drum set and started rocking to the lyrics, ”Miss Lori, I am going to miss you so much. You are the best. You’re better than sushi and ice cream mixed together!” “Hmmm…I thought. Sushi and ice cream? No wonder I’m still not married!” Behind the tears and the laughter we shared that day, I realized I had not only nourished him, but he had nourished me as well.
They took me on their journey. While I was their Virgil, they were my Dante. Perhaps they saw me as their guide, but without them, there would not have been a story. There has been no greater reward in my life than to see these children grow. My very first client, Joey, paved the way to a tremendous learning experience. In one of our last sessions, he had enough insight to tell me he did not speak in kindergarten because he was shy and afraid. I may not have been shy, but I certainly shared the feeling of fear and felt quite speechless at the start of this work. Today, as Joey flourishes socially and has numerous friends, I, too, have found my voice in my work. It is thanks to these children, the school-based fellowship program, and my supportive and inspiring teachers, director, and supervisors that I feel confident that silence will turn into a story and sushi can be mixed with ice cream.
If you are interested in the CAGS and Child and Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy contact Dr. William Sharp