Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Kid

All of us have moments in our childhood where we come alive for the first time. And we go back to those moments and think, this is when I became myself.
Rita Dove

One of the toughest parts of being a therapist is watching a child suffer. Don’t get me wrong, I hate to see anyone suffer, but it’s different with a kid as so many things in their lives are out of their personal control. This was especially true with Marquis, a 10-year old boy from one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, who was sent to me after continually causing problems in school.

I’d seen a lot of kids like Marquis over the years, but there was immediately something about him that was just a little different. Sizing me up as he first came into my office, he immediately critiqued my clothes, my cell phone and several things about my general appearance. My first reaction was amusement. I had to admit, the kid had some chutzpah, and I knew it was going to be tough to build any kind of rapport with him when he had such little respect for both me as well as my profession.

I downshifted into one of the great tools any child therapist should have in their toolbox, a deck of Uno cards. Kids are all different, and some come in ready to tell you their whole life story while others are secretive and guarded. Marquis was in a category all his own, and I suspected that doing something competitive where he could show off his skills might allow him to let his guard down and open up a little.
But I was wrong…

Marquis fell behind in the game, and immediately began stuffing cards in his pocket to make up the deficit. Pretty sneaky, and again pretty amusing. It was clear he would do anything to win, and when I finally let him do so, he launched into a full “soulja boy” dance, as much to celebrate his tainted victory as to taunt and humiliate me for losing.

I had my work cut out for me he here, and thought long and hard about how to proceed. As a former dj and nightclub manager, I had a working knowledge of rap music, and we began talking about some of his favorite rappers. Each time we identified someone we both knew, he would rap one of their songs for me. It was an unconventional approach to be sure, but slowly but surely it seemed like we were getting somewhere.

I thought about how I might use my former experience as a comedian in this situation, but also knew I should proceed cautiously. He had proven to be pretty critical of me in several areas already, and I was sure telling him about my time as a comedian would result in the inevitable, “say something funny,” most likely followed by some kind of insulting remark. Still, I thought I saw an opportunity here, and when I asked him about what made him laugh, he talked about his love for Chris Rock, and in particular the show “Everybody hates Chris,” detailing Rock’s younger years as a kid who was widely disliked by almost everyone.

Finally a clue. I was familiar with the show and knew it detailed Chris’ troubled childhood, and how he was picked on by almost everyone around him. At the end of the session I asked Marquis to think about how the show related to his own life, and think about how that might be something we could talk about the following week. Arriving home, I began catching up on the show myself, and as I did an idea began to crystallize in my mind that I thought might be relevant to this new little class clown that had entered into my life.

The next week Marquis surprised me by coming in to the session with a list of all of the people that had wronged him and that antagonized him on a daily basis, and seeing how lengthy it was, I began to question the wisdom of this decision. It did get us talking though, and in this conversation I found out that his father had left the family when he was just a baby, and that he had two older brothers that teased him pretty mercilessly. It was a pretty classic recipe for a kid to act out, and I had been thinking about how we could channel some of this energy into something more positive.

Unbeknownst to Marquis, I had spoken with his mother on the phone earlier in the week, and had discussed with her the idea of him taking some comedy classes in downtown Chicago. Although she was certainly receptive to the idea, money was very tight in the family, and I explained to her that I may be able to arrange for him to take the classes at no cost to her, and that I would even be able to accompany him to the first couple of sessions if they could also commit to continuing on with therapy.

So I explained to Marquis the plan we had discussed, and his eyes lit up like Christmas lights.

“You mean I’m gonna be famous?” he asked.

“That’s not really what this is about buddy,” I explained. My challenge was to try and encourage him to channel some of his frustration and anger into something more positive, without promising immediate gratification and fame.

“Here is the thing. I was a lot like you once, and I used to get into quite a bit of trouble with the teachers too. I was thinking that maybe you could tell some of your jokes and use some of your creativity in these comedy classes and on stage instead of at school where you keep getting in trouble. What do you think?” I asked.

“Why would you want to do that for me?” he asked as he eyed me with suspicion.

“Like I say, I was just like you once. I’m doing it for you because I don’t want something bad to happen to you. I also want you to keep coming here to counseling so we can talk about the things that you worry about that maybe I can help you with. You see I’ve been to counseling myself, and I’m hoping that maybe it will be helpful for you to talk like it was for me.”

With that he came over and hugged me, which came as quite a surprise given how tough of a kid he was. I was reminded of the psychologist Rudolph Dreikur’s words that, “children need encouragement like plants need water,” a mantra I repeated often to myself when working with kids. It was the most important thing I knew about doing therapy with children.

To suggest this plan was a straight path to success would not be truthful, and we continued to have plenty of bumps in the road as we worked on getting him to be more respectful at school. There were realities about his situation we couldn’t change, such as his family’s financial situation and other realities he faced in both his home as well as his neighborhood.

I never will forget his first day at the comedy classes though, as we took train down into the city with him wearing a purple outfit like one of his comic idols Kat Williams. Watching him carry his little cane on the train was so amusing I couldn’t help but laugh.

I don’t know yet how his story ends, but I do know he went from an extremely disruptive kid to one who learned to play well with others with the very patient assistance of his improv instructors. He was in fact a very funny kid, and seeing his first show, I was as proud as any of the parents sitting in the audience.

This experience with Marquis reminded me that it is never to early to teach kids about the amazing power of laughter as a way of coping with life’s difficulties. In this particular instance Marquis went from a kid with an abusive sense of humor to one that learned to cooperate and listen based on the principles of improvisational comedy. Here in Chicago there are several places for kids to learn this skill, including the world famous Second City training center which has programs for kids of all ages. Teaching kids to develop this skill has been a highly successful approach in my experience, and moving forward, it is something I hope to do a whole lot more of.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A cosmic reminder

The world is your exercise-book, the pages on which you do your sums.
It is not reality, although you can express reality there if you wish. You are also free to write nonsense, or lies, or to tear the pages.
Richard Bach- Illusions

“In the world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
Oscar Wilde

Sitting on my front porch on a perfect Chicago evening drinking Sangria and enjoying an amazing breeze. Earlier today I celebrated with our hockey team and 2 million other people, and then hung out with some musicians at our blues fest who were some of the best who ever lived. It truly was a spectacular day. Do I say this to gloat? To remind everyone of the life of leisure I live? Not really. Well, maybe a little.

The truth is, this has been one of the most stressful weeks I can recall. Without going into detail, I had a professional crisis that threatened to undermine everything I’ve spent the last decade or so working on. It was scary as well as quite humbling.

I bring up these two small vignettes from my life because they have reminded me of an important lesson that I constantly need reminding of. All of this life, all of these things we worry and sweat and grieve about, we, for better or for worse, helped put them into our lives. That is, I’m convinced, the hardest human pill to swallow, but if we can truly grasp this idea, really take it into our hearts, we are free to create an entirely new universe anytime we choose.

I have used this kind of reasoning with my clients many times, and I am often met with a chorus of protests. What about my kids and my bills, and my asshole husband, and on and on and on. This brings me back to my own life and the stories I was alluding to. 48 hours separated these two experiences, yet I allowed my reality to shift from utter catastrophe to the complete other side of the dial towards pure joy. I’ve always been a creature of extremes, while also striving towards what the Buddha called the “middle path.”

You know what was funny about my day of “pure joy” though? Every little thing went wrong. I dropped my toothbrush and it fell right on the bristle side. I banged my knee on a coffee table while trying to answer the door. My gorgeous Fred Flinstone-size turkey leg fell right out of my hand onto my pristine white shirt.

What was different? How I chose to respond to all of these things, and in this case it was with a great deal of laughter. As a very odd man used to say to me, sometimes you’re the pigeon and sometimes you’re the statue, and today I was a very appreciative statue. For all of the wrong turns and sharp corners the world threw at me today, I just had to laugh. It was like a cosmic reminder that, yes, you are going to have a spectacular day today, but here is a little bang on the elbow so you can remember that sometimes it goes the other way too. A little middle path reminder that I was much in need of.

The takeaway I hope is that it isn’t the events that happen to us, but rather the way we chose to think about them. Comedy is tragedy plus time, but it is up to us to decide if we are going to dwell on the little tragedies in our lives for a couple of seconds or a couple of years. All of this is just a very small slice of a much larger reality that cares very little for our petty grievances, and make no mistake, they are petty. We can chose a thousand different paths in this life, but ultimately what we leave behind in our lives is the way we made people feel, and personally I want to be remembered as someone who laughed well and laughed often.