Expecting another typical intake, I quickly glanced over my notes about my incoming interview and hopped down the stairs to greet an awaiting family of three. Each member of the family wore a different expression. Mom was uncomfortable, dad was excitedly nervous, 10-year old appeared to be a mixture of irritated, bored, and anxious. Nothing out of the ordinary, I thought as I introduced myself to each member of the family.
During these interviews that I conduct three to four times per week, my job is to spend about thirty minutes with a child and assess the severity of developmental delay and the likelihood of success in our social skill training program. Through natural conversation, questions, and sometimes silly games, I can usually gauge how a child will respond to our supportive but direct method of coaching and skills training.
“Let’s go upstairs” I said cheerily and turned on my heels. I expected the boy to run ahead of me, eager to see the toys and video games that awaited us upstairs. When the footsteps didn’t follow behind me, I glanced back and saw the boy hit his mom with the stuffed animal he was holding in his arms and a hushed “stop it” come from the father. Instantly I knew something was wrong. The way in which the small boy hit his mom, the lack of surprise from the father, the distant and broken look in the mom’s eyes that now started to make sense.
We settled into the living room and I asked the young boy, “So, what have you been up to this summer?” He snarled and said, “NO QUESTIONS, NO QUESTIONS!!” I told him it was okay, I wouldn’t ask him any questions. His response was reaching down, putting his hands on the carpet, and shouting “this carpet isn’t soft enough, it has to go!!!” I had to stop myself from smiling, I suddenly knew exactly how this intake was going to go. Or so I thought.
I have met several kids with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)– they are a true challenge and there is no winning with them. I can give them a piece of candy and they’ll say they wanted a donut. I’ll give them a donut and they’ll be furious that I didn’t offer the candy. ODD comes in different forms and severities, as most disorders do, and I already knew that this little guy was one of the more severe cases. He hated everyone in the room, and he made sure we knew it. He called his mom a “twit” when she tried to speak, kept acting like he was going to throw a toy at my face, and called his dad by his first name as he demanded that he “shut up.”
My interview style changed from the normal “let’s have a fun thirty minutes together” to “let’s see if I can somehow get us through the next ten minutes without the kid having a complete meltdown.” Hah. As I started to tell him a story, he said “Oh, let’s see what stupid, boring story you’re about to tell. I don’t care at all about it.” More than annoyed, I was intrigued by and curious about this small, angry child. I had never seen such a severe case of ODD in person. It honestly felt like I was watching a movie. A character written into a script who was too eccentric to even be believable. I pictured King Joffrey from Game of Thrones– yep, that was who I was interviewing.
Things escalated as the boy no longer only got mad if I talked to him, but he became furious when I spoke to his mother. He started yelling that she wasn’t allowed to speak, calling her names, and saying that he hated her. We ignored him, but he continued his verbal assaults. My heart broke for this mom, so clearly scarred from years of verbal abuse by her son.
I’m not sure what set him off, but finally the boy decided he had had enough of his mom even though he had barely let her speak at all. He got up, ran across the room, and grabbed her hair and shoulders with a surprising amount of strength and violence. He was grunting and making animalistic noises as he put a large chunk of her brown hair into his mouth. The dad, now bear hugging the boy from behind, struggled to break his son’s grip on his mom.
Finally and unexpectedly, the boy let go and turned around to walk back to his seat. Just as I was about to suggest we end the meeting, he turned back around and began attacking his mom again. This time, dad wasn’t quick enough. The boy grabbed another fistful of his mom’s hair and ripped it out of her head. Tears silently fell down her cheeks, she didn’t make a sound. She reminded me of a wounded animal, abused for so long that she no longer needed to cry out in pain or desperation, it wasn’t going to matter anyway.
I told the family that I was going to leave the room in case I was an added trigger for him. I told the boy he could leave, he didn’t need to be here and he was free to go. He still had a wild look in his eye but he dropped the clump of hair into his mom’s hand who carefully tucked it into her purse. She tucked it into her purse! She tucked a clump of her hair into her purse because her ten-year old son just attacked her and ripped it out of her head. She tucked her hair into her purse the same way I would tuck a letter to be mailed, a wallet, or a favorite book into my purse.
As soon as they left, I had two main thoughts:
- What in the world just happened? How sad. How devastating. How scary. How can you have a child like that? What do you do with that kid? How can you LOVE a child like that? While rhetorical, a voice inside my head answered, “you don’t.”
- The mom, she lied to me in a desperate attempt to get her son enrolled into our program. This all could have been avoided.
A requirement of joining our program is that the child has not had any physical violence in the last six months, and during our phone interview which precedes the in-person visit, the mom told me that he has had no violence or aggression in the past six months. As she left my office that day, now crying harder than before and shaking all over, she said “He always does this to me, he always does this to me.”
I can’t imagine the level of sadness and agony that must accompany having a child like that. A child who, I believe, would kill you if he had the chance and the means.
It was a strange day, but maybe even stranger is how it affected me. I don’t know if it’s a result of working with kids who have a lot of meltdowns (all nonviolent and non-physical), but I didn’t quite recognize myself in dealing with the situation. The more violent and angry the kid got, the calmer I became. After the family left, I comforted my two upset employees and took them out for pizza to debrief about what had just happened. Later, when asked by my boss, “are you OK?” I answered honestly with, “Yeah, I’m actually fine.”
And I was. And I still am. My husband, when talking about what happened two days later, suggested that I was probably still in shock and hadn’t yet processed what happened. But, I know that’s not the case. I’ve processed it, I know that it was a little scary and the most violent human attack I’ve actually ever seen in person, but I don’t feel upset by it. I feel so emotionally sound that I started wondering, “What is wrong with me? Why hasn’t this affected me more?”
But maybe the thing has happened to me that I never thought would happen. Maybe I have finally built up the disconnect and compartmentalization that is needed when you work in the human services field. It’s why doctors and nurses can handle trauma and death all day, therapists can talk to child molestors, social workers can remove a child from an abusive home, and they can all go home at the end of the day not completely ruined inside.
Two years ago when I started this job, I felt like I was barely holding it together some days. Even a child crying because of a bully at school or a parent crying to me because of their child having no friends went home with me at night. Day after day, the stories built up and they felt incredibly overwhelming– so much so that I had to seek the help of a professional to learn how to deal with the sadness and heartbreak I witnessed on a daily basis. “Why are people so awful to one another?” I would ask myself as I put back together the pieces of another sweet teenager with high functioning autism who had to drop out of school because of being bullied so badly.
Fast forward two years and I can literally watch a ten-year old rip his mom’s hair out while growling like an animal and easily go out for pizza and teach two classes afterward. I never thought I’d get here, I never thought I wanted to get here. I fully recognize that it makes me better at my job if I can be in the midst of chaos and remain calm and objective, but was I processing it the way I should be?
For a few days I was worried about this level of compartmentalization and disconnect I apparently possessed. Is this OK? Is there something wrong with me that I don’t feel disturbed or deeply upset, but instead am even more fascinated with Oppositional Defiant Disorder and want to research it in my spare time? Will this disconnect transfer into my personal life and I’ll no longer feel the overwhelming empathy I am so used to feeling for others? While sometimes burdening, I love that part of myself.
The next day, I watched two of the kids in my class have the most beautiful, genuine interaction. A boy who came to me a year ago full of anger, selfishness, and insecurity walked up to a new girl in the group and said, “Welcome! You’re going to love it here. I’ll help you figure out how things go, it’s OK to be nervous, but know that we are all happy you’re here and you’re going to make some good friends.” The girl, who had no friends according to her parents, cracked a smile and I had to turn my head so they wouldn’t see the tears welling up in my eyes.
These kiddos. These sweet, precious, persistent, brave, beautiful kiddos. Thanks for showing me that the tears are still there– they’re just being saved up for the tiny moments that others may see as insignificant, but I’ll remember forever. These are the emotions I want to take home with me at the end of the day, these are the ones I’ll never be able to disconnect from, thankfully.